Are Smart cars smart? The pros and cons of microcars


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

It’s no secret that I dislike automobiles, or rather Chicago’s over-dependence on them. Privately owned autos, especially big ones, contribute to all kinds of problems in our region, including traffic deaths, congestion, climate change, obesity and urban sprawl. Car parking gobbles up valuable land, with Chicago’s on-street parking alone occupying an area roughly the size of Hyde Park, not to mention the hundreds of acres used for parking lots. The first Mayor Daley carved up the city with expressways and allowed Louis Sullivan masterpieces to be razed for garages, and an eight-lane superhighway cuts off residents from one of our city’s greatest assets, the lake shore.

On the other hand, there are understandable reasons why Chicagoans might want to purchase an auto, as opposed to occasionally renting one or using a car-sharing service. These include long commutes to distant neighborhoods or suburbs that might be daunting by other modes, the ability to give rides to friends and family, the need to haul gear around town, road trips to Wisconsin and more. I do believe there’s such a thing as responsible car ownership, and it’s possible to include driving, along with walking, cycling, transit and cabs, in your toolbox of transportation modes.

But a large percentage of Chicago car trips involve only one or two occupants. So for those who feel they need to own a car, could two-seat “microcars” like the Smart car, a Mercedes-Benz product, help mitigate some of the harmful aspects of driving? These tiny vehicles, measuring about eight feet long by five feet wide, go against the grain of America’s traditional “bigger is better” mentality.

Continue reading Are Smart cars smart? The pros and cons of microcars

Traffic fatality map: Chicago, we have a problem

Let’s be thankful that federal funding for safety programs like Safe Routes To School and bicycle and pedestrian enhancements haven’t been entirely cut and there are politicians who defend these programs (aside from Representative Earl Blumenauer from Oregon, I can’t name any others).

This map, first published by The Guardian, a British newspaper, shows a point for every traffic-related fatality in the United States between January 1, 2001, and December 31, 2009. The map was created by ITO World, a transportation data company, using information from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Yes, that’s Chicago underneath all of those markers representing people who’ve died in traffic crashes. View traffic fatality map in fullscreen. Continue reading Traffic fatality map: Chicago, we have a problem

How do I really feel about driving?


Photo by Mia Park

In 2003 Eric Paul Erickson interviewed me for the Chicago Tribune about my thoughts on bike advocacy and activism. At the time I said, “I think 10 years from now it just won’t make a lot of sense to own a car here.”

Unlike in, say, New York City, certainly Manhattan, car ownership was fairly practical in Chicago back then and it still is today. Although there are plenty of hassles involved, parking is still relatively plentiful, city fees are affordable and gas is currently less than $4 a gallon. Was my prediction unrealistic?

Continue reading How do I really feel about driving?

Uninsured drivers and other tales


Yesterday I posted this statement about automobile crashes on my Facebook wall:

‎36.9% of all automobile crashes (including the ones involving pedestrians and bicyclists) in 2010 were labeled “hit and run” by IDOT.

I pulled this information from the crash data I’ll be analyzing and visualizing with three other people.

The first comment I received asked if that number was related to the number of uninsured motorists in Chicago. I found a report published by the Insurance Research Council (IRC; funded by property casualty insurance companies) that estimated, for 2009, 15% of drivers in Illinois do not have insurance. The estimates were “based on the ratio of uninsured motorist insurance claim frequency to bodily injury claim frequency.” I don’t know if this is a good, or the best measurement technique, but it’s one way that we can compare annual data. It seems this method will not include crashes where neither driver has insurance (driver or medical), or when no claim is made against the uninsured driver.

Then today I was at MicroCenter in Logan Square shopping for a computer hard drive. Someone else was standing next to me looking at some of the same products. He got a phone call. It went something like this. (Note: I did not hear anything the caller said – I’m making it up based on his responses.)

  • Caller: What are you doing?
  • Man: Shopping for hard drives.
  • Caller: How’d you get there?
  • Man: I’m borrowing this person’s car.
  • Caller: Let’s go somewhere.
  • Man: No, I don’t care, I’m not taking you on a joy ride. I haven’t had a license for three years. If I get pulled over, I’m going to jail.

What the heck does one do in this situation? Do you call the police and report that a driving crime is about to happen?

Simply because he has no license doesn’t make him a bad driver, but his tone and his message to the caller indicated, to me, that his license to drive was taken from him. But that was a little deterrent. He calculated his risk and concluded it was low enough to borrow someone’s car and drive to the store to buy a hard drive, but that driving any further (taking the caller on a joy ride) was too risky. There’s probably some correlation that the longer distance one drives, or the more time one drives, the more likely they will be pulled over. But for there to be that correlation, police officers would have to be 1) randomly distributed across the region where this person is driving, and 2) paying attention to driver infractions.

As long as the man avoids making errors and ensures the borrowed car meets legal requirements to drive (lights, registration, etc…), then he will avoid being pulled over. Since the IRC estimates that 15% of drivers in Illinois have no insurance, it may be prudent for the police to randomly pull over a certain percentage of drivers each year simply to check for valid insurance. When there’s a crash with an uninsured driver, that infraction of driving without insurance is just as important to public safety as the action that caused the crash. Not every insured driver carries uninsured motorist insurance to protect themselves, monetarily, from this situation.

I searched Flickr for “uninsured driver” and this was one of the photos that appeared. The driver of the white car hit the dark car in the foreground. The photo was posted by one of the people in the dark car and says that the driver of the white car did not have driving insurance. Photo by vikisuzan in Kent, Washington. 

Is there such a thing as a “green” car?


When Zoe Stathopoulos, an ad exec from Ruder Finn, contacted Steven and me to invite us to the Chicago stop of Hyundai’s Drive 4 Hope event promoting the Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV), a hydrogen-powered car, it raised our eyebrows.

“I think this is right up your alley given your interest in sustainable transportation in Chicago,” she wrote. “As those who are interested in green/clean energy and the environment know, nothing in the automotive industry holds more promise for the health of the planet than fuel cell technology.” Continue reading Is there such a thing as a “green” car?

Grid Bits: Electric car charging network; pinup chicks calendar


One of the new electric vehicle charging stations popping up at Walgreens around Chicago. 


Walgreens is adding charging stations for electric vehicles at many of its Chicago-area stores and around the country. I read about a Chargepoint station at the Walgreens nearest me (2744 N California) when I was browsing my block on EveryBlock. Then I read about this and other stations around the city, including at Soldier Field, on Curbed Chicago. Continue reading Grid Bits: Electric car charging network; pinup chicks calendar