Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel Seen As Pro-Bike, Pro-Transit

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(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) Chicago -- America's third largest city -- is getting a cyclist Mayor. And one who's interested in transit funding,  large-scale bike-share, car-share, and the nitty gritty of bike lane design. (And one who has some atoning to do for something he neglected to say -- but you'll have to read to the end of the post to find out what.)

We've already written about Rahm Emanuel's transportation plan, which he put forward as a candidate.

But now we've got some fresh details that shed light on what he'll likely do as Mayor of Chicago. About a month ago, Emanuel met with a group of transportation advocates and environmentalists to be briefed on transit and transportation issues. The meeting, according to those present, lasted a full hour.

This kind of meeting seems to have laundered Emanuel from a former White House Chief of staff reviled by Republicans for pushing health care, an energy bill, and an $800 billion economic stimulus package -- and by the left for the way he pushed those things -- to an energetic young Mayor with a bunch of new ideas overwhelmingly supported by Chicago voters.

"Everybody knows about his style and that he’s very direct and smart" the Center for Neighborhood Technology's Sharon Feigon told us. Feigon is also the CEO of I-GO car share, a non profit Chicago-based car share outfit.

"I was impressed that he knew as much detail about all the stuff he’s talking about. A lot of  candidate meetings -- they end up being very general. This struck me as more detailed. He had done some homework"

The participants presented Emanuel with a "Sustainable Transportation Platform," which

the group asked him to support, and in general, participants said, he did, although they said they didn't asked him to fill out a written questionnaire. (He did respond to a related questionnaire by the group, Environmental Law and Policy Center Environmental Law and Policy Center, in which he said he supported transit funding as part of a clean energy strategy.)

"He understood public transit was underfunded," Feigon said. "And that improvements were needed to make our transit system really world class. Obviously, he has a very good grasp of the federal funding sources and a lot of of transportation projects require that kind of money. He talked about trying to make use of public private partnerships, and that financing would obviously be tight-- but he was talking about how you overcome that."

All the groups we spoke with acknowledged this would not be an easy lift -- especially with an anti-spending public mood, and transit systems underwater everywhere in the country.

But still, they gushed. "During the meeting, we learned that Emanuel is an avid cyclist and he wants to significantly expand and improve the city’s biking network and its capacity. I told him that New York City’s recent addition of separated bike lanes and other biking improvements carried a price tag of roughly $2 million -- a drop in the bucket compared to most transportation projects," wrote Active Transportation Alliance Executive Director Ron Burke in his blog shortly after the meeting.

"Emanuel demonstrated that he has thought about bike lane design. While showing Emanuel photos of separated bike lanes and other bike facilities, he commented that none of the separated lanes in the photos had the design he had in mind."

Emanuel also promised to speed up the installation of bike lanes in Chicago to 25 miles a year, up from eight a year, so that there would be 100 miles of new bike lanes by the end of his first term.

Chicago, with a much less aggressive bike lane construction schedule than, say New York, has run into less static than other cities when installing bike lanes, transportation supporters say. Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Ethan Spotts told Transportation Nation: "Mayor  Richard Daley, aldermen, and the Chicago Department of Transportation -- they've all  been very supportive."

But still, "Chicago has gotten complacent in the last decade -- though Mayor Daley has been supportive. What has been lacking on the city level was the innovation piece," said one transportation activist. "About decade ago we were rated number one for cycling but we got set in our ways. We stopped innovating. Places like New York City and Minneapolis have leapfrogged us, now we’re playing catch-up. But with the new Mayor-Elect,  there's a lot of energy."

New York has installed hundreds of miles of bike lanes in the last four years, closed off parts of Broadway to automobile traffic, and announced an RFP for the largest bike share in the country -- about 10,000 bikes. (We've reported elsewhere on the the controversy surrounding some of these changes.)  Minneapolis was one of the first cities in the nation to have bike share.

So what does Emanuel have to atone for? "He apologized to me for not having mentioned I-GOCar Share at another forum," Feigon said. "He was going to atone for his sin leaving I-GO out. He said he would do it at Yom Kippur," the Jewish high holy day where observant Jews ask to be absolved of their sins. That gives Emanuel about eight or nine months, and by then we should know a whole lot more about what kind of Mayor he'll actually be.