As part of our ongoing project to interview all 50 of Chicago’s aldermen about sustainable transportation issues in their districts, I recently sat down with Harry Osterman at the 48nd Ward service office, 5533 N. Broadway. His ward includes most of Edgewater and parts of Uptown.
The son of the late former 48th Ward alderman and community activist Kathy Osterman, for whom Hollywood Beach was renamed, he got started in local politics as an aide to recent 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith. During the last decade he served as state representative for the 14th District, showing a particular interest in public safety as he advocated for gun control and tougher penalties for domestic violence and unlicensed driving. After Smith chose not to run for reelection in conjunction with Richard M. Daley’s retirement, last year Harry Osterman won the election to replace her.
Osterman recently launched the year-long community input process for the 48th Ward Master Plan, a planning roadmap for the rest of the decade. We talked about how sustainable transportation might fit into the plan, his opposition to the CTA closing any of the ward’s six Red Line stations, and his ideas for promoting walking, biking and transit in the area, including on-street bike racks on Andersonville’s main drag.
Tell me about your commuting habits? Do you find yourself walking around the ward much, for instance?
So I was elected last year as alderman of the 48th Ward, a lakefront ward, incredibly diverse, great neighborhood. Formerly I was a state rep for eleven years, so from February to May I would each week drive down to Springfield or take Amtrak. Being an alderman now affords me the ability to walk to work and walk through the community. I’m very much one who likes to see what’s going on on the street. So I ride my bike, I walk, I drive. I’ve got three kids so transporting them from school to after-school activities, I kind of need the car. Sometimes I’ll take the red Line to City Hall.
Do you ride a bicycle at all for transportation or recreation?
Recreation. Being an alderman can sometimes be stressful so one of the things I love to do is ride my bike along the lakefront down to Oak Street Beach and back. It’s a nice 14-mile roundtrip. I’m a bigger guy so one of my goals is to lose some weight. Riding a bike helps and it’s a great way to clear your mind and enjoy living in Chicago.
Kathy Osterman Beach – photo by Ken Ilio
So you guys are working on the 48th Ward Master Plan. How do you see sustainable transportation, walking, biking and transit, fitting into that?
A couple of ways. Our neighborhood is kind of a gateway to Lake Shore Drive. So every day we get traffic that comes to our community from the Northwest Side, the North Side, and Evanston to get to Lake Shore Drive at Hollywood. That causes every day a lot of challenges when it comes to congestion and safety on the streets. So we are looking at our master plan and trying to come up with ways to improve public transportation, buses and the Red Line. As a state rep I was able to get $10 million to build a new Metra station at Peterson and Ravenswood, which is going to begin the design phase this year and construction would be done within three years. So it’s taken a lot of time to get that done.
But our goal is to get people out of cars and get them using public forms of transportation. Additionally, we are where the bike path is. So getting people to use our community as a pass-through for bikes, to get them to the bike path to take them downtown, is definitely something that we’re going to promote. That also involves making sure cyclists are obeying the rules of the road.
We have had situations on Sheridan Road where we have a high concentration of senior citizens that have had problems with bicyclists on the sidewalk and there were some injuries. Last summer, and we’re going to do it again this summer, we worked with the Bike Ambassadors to inform people of the correct way to get from the end of the path at Ardmore and Sheridan to the designated bike routes. And we’re going to continue to explore ways to work with the CTA and the city to encourage bike use, whether it’s bike and rail, or neighborhood greenways, like they do in Portland. That’s something that we’re exploring right now for parts of our community.
Bikes at Ardmore and Sheridan, near the north end of the Lakefront Trail – photo by Robert Zverina
So that’s something that you’re interested in, the neighborhood greenways?
You’ve heard it’s been a little controversial in the 47th Ward?
I have heard about that. Part of the reason that we’re doing the master plan is we’re taking a significant amount of time, about 11 months, to do this. We have a transportation committee, and we’re going to plan out the future so that I’m not making decisions without the full community buy-in. We’re also getting experts in the field that can tell us, here’s what we think is a good idea. So with our planning process, whether it’s transportation or economic development, we want to have a long-range view. And when we come to invest infrastructure dollars I want to make sure that we’re planning for the long-term and not just doing things that are quick but might have to be torn up in a year or two.
I heard a rumor that Andersonville might be getting an on-street bike-parking corral. Is that true?
Clark Street in Andersonville – photo by Irving Welski
One of the things is we would like to see the bike-sharing program up this way. That’s something that we’ve talked to the department of transportation about. A local architect and small business owner came up with the concept of a bump-out bike corral at a couple of “T” intersections. I think they were on the 40th Ward side of the street, Pat O’Connor. Alderman O’Connor and I haven’t really had a conversation yet about how that would be implemented but the plan looked interesting.
This would be on Clark Street?
Yes. It was proposed to be on Rascher [5430 N.] and, I think, Farragutt [5230 N.]
So when you have a “T” intersection you can’t have parking, right? Because you’re worried about moving cars crashing into the parked cars. So the bump-outs would go in the no parking area?
OK, well that’s an interesting idea.
It is. We’d like to see opportunities for those type of bump-outs along the Red Line so that people could park their bikes and hop on the Red Line, or take their bike on the Red Line. We want to promote the intersection of biking and public transportation. So that’s something that we’re in the process of now. CTA’s got a design / build program that’s going to renovate all the stations in our ward, with the exception of Bryn Mawr, over the next year. Bryn Mawr’s going to go through a bigger design process with community involvement but it’s my goal that each of those stations is going to have a lot of bike parking, similar to some of the stations along the Brown Line.
Photo by Mark Susina
So, talking about the transit, a big issue in your ward must be that the CTA is talking about the possibility of shutting down the stations at Lawrence and Thorndale. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m absolutely opposed to that and will fight it with every ounce of energy. If you look at it historically, going back 30 or 40 years, every five to ten years someone from the CTA proposes to close down Thorndale or Lawrence. Here’s the reality: each of those stations gets about a million riders a year. As the city is trying to grow the use of public transportation, I don’t think it makes sense to close down stations that have a million people a year using them.
Both of those stations are in desperate need of the work that’s going to get done to them. One that renovation goes through I firmly believe that those ride numbers are going to go up. Both of those streets are on commercial districts. Lawrence is in the shadows of the Uptown Theater, the Aragon and the Riviera. We are working very hard to create an entertainment district that’s viable there. That station is at some point in time going to need entrances and exits very similar to at Addison by Wrigley Field where large volumes of people can get on and get off.
Lawrence Red Line stop – photo by Serge Lubomudrov
Thorndale is also in the heart of a business district and it’s also near five schools, the largest indoor park district facility in the city [the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway], and what’s soon to be the largest neighborhood library in the city. And there’s senior housing around there. So making sure that young and old alike can get on and off the train at Thorndale is critical for our community. While it might be easy to say people should walk a few blocks, the reality is they’re using that station and it’s important for their quality of life. The reason a lot of people choose to live in our community is access to public transportation as well proximity to the lake and the diversity of the people that live here. So that’s something that I’ve made loud and clear to the CTA and will continue to do so.
Just to play devil’s advocate here, the argument for closing the station is that stations are too close together on this section of the Red Line, which slows down the train. Maybe stations could be consolidated so that no one’s getting too long of a walk but everyone gets a faster ride, which might grow ridership. Obviously that would hurt the businesses near Thorndale and Lawrence. So it seems like, from an alderman’s perspective it would hurt local businesses, but from a citywide perspective it might help grow CTA ridership.
Photo by Mike Steele
I don’t think the minute-and-a-half stop at a station like Thorndale is going to hurt ridership in Rogers Park and Evanston. Evanston has the Evanston Express. I think the reality is the work on the tracks that needs to happen, and the long-term revitalization has to happen. So the reality is that long-term we’re going to have to rebuild the line. I think it’s long past its life expectancy, and if there is a time issue I think it’s more related to the track work and the infrastructure work that needs to happen instead of the stations. When I was young I went to Gordon Tech High School and I took the train downtown every day. I want to say it was 20 minutes to get downtown. And I think a lot of that change has to do with the track worth instead of the minute stop at the station.
The CTA over the last five years has worked to improve the slow zones, which I think has made the ride downtown a little bit quicker. Are they where they were years ago? No. Do I also know that people have moved out of our community because of that? Yeah. I’ve had people tell me that getting downtown in an hour on the train is not worth it, so people move out. My goal is to have clean, safe stations and a CTA that gets people downtown or wherever they go in a quick time frame.
Any other CTA issues in the ward we should discuss?
Safety. It’s important for us to have safe CTA stations. When the CTA installed security cameras we fought to have one of the Red Line stations in our community be one of the first that had them, and we’ve spent a lot of time and energy working with the police department to make sure that the stations are safe. I passed a law at the state that would increase penalties for people selling drugs or carrying firearms near public transportation, so I want those stations to be safe and positive environments. I don’t want people to feel afraid to take the train, and that’s something that we’re working on every day.
What are your thoughts about the city’s Streets for Cycling plan and what have you heard from constituents?
I think people are excited about the opportunity. One of the major things that we’re going to look is Broadway. We just got done with the ward remap and the 48th Ward now extends all the way to Devon and Broadway. So Broadway from Devon to Foster’s all within the 48th Ward. How to have traffic flow safely through our community at the legal limit and have a street with a pedestrian feel on and not the feel of a highway is going to be critical part of the master plan.
Broadway Armory – photo by Brandon Bartoszek
How we incorporate bikes in that is something that we’re going to look very closely at. So whether it’s a bike lane on both sides of the street or whether it’s a protected bike lane on one side, I think that’s something that we’re going to spend a lot of time and energy talking to the neighbors about as well as talking to the city about to see if that’s possible. We also want to optimize Kenmore and Winthrop which are bike routes from the north end of the bike path up to Devon Street. We want to make sure that those streets are in good condition, and promote that as a bike corridor.
So you touched on the bike share program. So they recently chose the contractor for that. Initially they weren’t planning on having the system come up this far, right?
That initially was the case and I think we’re going to continue to talk to them about trying to extend it at least somewhat up this way. We’ve got the Red Line and we have the lakefront path, and I think having some bike share kiosks along that would be great. I’ve been to Washington, D.C. and I’ve seen how effective it has been there so I think it could be a great opportunity in this community.
Capital Bikeshare in D.C. – photo by John Taylor
Anything else you’d like to tell me about transportation in the ward?
This summer’s going to be very dusty in our community because we’ve got a lot of construction going on: Broadway, Sheridan, Lake Shore Drive and the Red Line are all going to be having construction at some point. We’re going to have weekly updates about the projects on our website. We put a lot of energy into the infrastructure of our community. Last year we repaved about twenty streets. This year we’re going to do maybe ten or fifteen. So I think making sure that people are informed about all the work that’s being done will help all of us all live through it. With all the construction, it’s a great summer to put the helmet on, hop on a bike and go to work or go for a ride.
Since they’re tearing up the street anyway, is there any interest in putting protected bike lanes in on Broadway and Sheridan?
Those would not be areas where I’d say we should do that right now. Much of the high bike traffic is north of Hollywood, and trying to get bicyclists from Devon to the start of the Lakefront Trail safely is key. And part of this also is we have the planning process, so I don’t want to jump ahead of the planning process. Part of what we’re going to do on Broadway long-term is really look at the infrastructure there. So whether we put in protected bike lanes and how that would work would all be part of the master plan process. Our goal is to plan that out this year and start implementing it in the years to come.