Jon Hilkevitch just wrapped up a 36-year career as a news reporter at The Chicago Tribune — half of that time he spent on the transportation beat, covering everything from walking to air travel.
While his scope was fairly wide in the world of transportation, Hilkevitch always showed a strong interest in keeping people informed about important issues related to biking, walking and transit. For his dedication to covering active transportation, we’re giving Jon our Public Service Award at our 30th Anniversary Soiree on Feb. 22.
As a transportation reporter, his stories appeared in the paper throughout the week, but his most anticipated articles appeared on Mondays as a column called “Getting Around,” which had a strong focus on commuting and travel for the average person.
In 2001 he co-led a Tribune reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about the dire problems facing U.S. air travel.
Hilkevitch is one of three special guests who will be receiving awards at our 30th Anniversary celebration.
Active Trans recently asked Jon a few questions about the current state active transportation in the region and what’s in store for its future.
Active Trans: What are some exciting developments you see on the horizon for mass transit in Chicagoland and how might these developments change how we get around?
Hilkevitch: If you build it wisely, riders will climb aboard. I expect to see a gradual but sustained continuation of the travel mode shift away from driving that is underway on some work-related and discretionary trips. Today, “getting there’’ is a battle for many commuters. Expanding options that slash trip times and costs, reduce traffic congestion and pollution, as well as encourage healthy choices like walking and bicycling will also effectively stretch the day to help create extra time in our lives for what’s really important.
The CTA’s Loop Link bus rapid transit is a step in the right direction. However, the service, predictably, could have been tooled to be consistently speedier and generated more of a positive buzz among the public. That’s if buses operated on dedicated bus-only lanes throughout the entire downtown route; if city traffic engineers figured out how to make bus traffic signal prioritization work; and if the promised prepaid boarding experiment were already in place. But more Loop Link improvements are still ahead in 2016 when the redesign of Canal Street debuts and the Union Station bus terminal opens. Let’s hope that the limitations of Loop Link do not inhibit the development of true rapid transit services via buses on corridors across Chicago.
On CTA rail, for the first time there is real cause for optimism that a long-studied project to run express trains between the Loop and O’Hare International Airport will finally take off. The city’s new aviation commissioner, Ginger Evans, is evidently the key to making it happen. Evans said an airport express rail service is among her next top priorities. Train trips of approximately 20 minutes between the airport and the central business district would be a game-changer – for local residents and visitors.
Ride-sharing services like UberX and Lyft, although a competitive threat to traditional taxis, will work hand in hand with mass transit agencies in the future. Many commuters are already combining transit with ride-share on some trips, and instead of attempting to challenge the trend, transit officials seem to realize that they don’t need to share the pie, but rather they can grow bus and train ridership by enlarging the pie. The next steps should be for the CTA, Metra and Pace to partner more with ride-sharing services, tapping into their technology and dispatching expertise to operate more efficiently and economically. Specifically, Pace could benefit from contracting with ride-share operators to update its antiquated paratransit door-to-door service, as well as remake and rebrand its carpooling operation.
Please join us as we honor Jon Hilkevitch and others at Active Trans’ 30th Anniversary Soirée. Enjoy hors d’oeuvres and beverages during cocktail hour, followed by dinner and an auction.
Active Trans: How has bicycling changed during the 18 years you were on the transportation beat in Chicagoland?
Hilkevitch: The expansion of bike lanes in Chicago, the 2013 debut of the Divvy bike-sharing program in Chicago and now in some suburbs, and ongoing work to eliminate gaps in the bike path network across much of the six-county region have clearly combined to redraw the cycling map. Bicycle racks installed on all CTA and Pace buses and an end to the ban on bikes on CTA and Metra trains have also contributed to widening cycling’s appeal. As a result, today, versus the mid-1990s, commuting on a bicycle is no longer mostly for ‘’hard-core bikers.’’
One factor that hasn’t changed – but in fact may be worse than ever – is the antagonism between bicyclists and drivers. While many have learned to share the road, you don’t need to travel for miles on a shared-use corridor before seeing dangerous situations involving bicyclists and motorists, violations of traffic laws by both parties and even road rage. While it is a welcome development that pavement traditionally and almost exclusively delegated to motor vehicles is now being redistributed to benefit bicyclists, pedestrians and communities, the re-balancing is still a work in progress.
Active Trans: What are some issues related to transit that you think the general public has trouble readily understanding?
Hilkevitch: First and foremost, the public generally seems to be unaware that virtually no form of transportation is able to cover operating costs based on the passenger fares collected – including airfares. During my almost two decades covering transportation for the Tribune, I received emails and phone calls from readers every time the CTA, Metra or Pace announced a fare increase, or when legislation to increase the sales tax for mass transit was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly. People would ask angrily: “What did they do with the last fare hike?’’
The CTA in particular has cut a lot of fat from its budgets over the years – waste that should never have existed yet was built into the system by political patronage and union contracts that are not tied to job performance. Those abuses have opened up the CTA to legitimate criticism. But it’s also important to note that all forms of transportation receive subsidies or financial breaks to help close the gap between the revenue that is collected and operating expenses.
Drivers complain about deteriorated roads and bridges, but those structures would be in even worse shape were it not for the fact that the majority of federal transportation funding goes to building and maintaining highways and other roads. I believe elected officials and other policy-makers must finally stop ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room – the need to significantly enhance revenue for transportation infrastructure modernization, whether through more user fees, increase in motor fuel taxes or other means – and to have an adult conversation with taxpayers. It’s not an easy selling job, but a convincing case can be made.
In addition, the public would likely suffer migraines if they had to shoulder the responsibility to run transit agencies that must plan years in advance for infrastructure improvements without receiving the long-term funding that is needed to carry out projects on time and within budget. State and federal funding increases come in sporadic spurts between long dry spells. It’s hardly the model that has led to the construction of world-class public transit systems in Europe and Asia.
Active Trans: In your years covering walking, biking and transit in the region, what was the biggest surprise to you? What caught you most off guard?
Hilkevitch: The biggest surprise has been the unfounded reluctance of government agencies at the local and state levels to test great ideas that originated elsewhere and proved successful. It’s really disappointing how long it took the CTA and then Metra, and finally Amtrak and the South Shore Line, to allow bicycles on trains, despite years of lobbying by the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. The current bikes-on-trains rules should be further liberalized to encourage more transit ridership.
When will we see variable pricing on the CTA, Metra and Pace? Opportunities existed long before the Ventra fare-payment system was introduced to tailor fares to match rider demand during peak and off-peak hours. It only makes sense to charge higher fares when transit capacity is maxed out, and to lower fares to encourage discretionary riders to travel during slow commuting periods when buses and trains are less crowded. Remember the 25-cent surcharge that the CTA formerly imposed on some express bus routes and the extra fee that conductors collected on Evanston Express trains between Wilmette and the Loop?
So-called congestion pricing is needed to better manage infrastructure on the transit system as well as on Chicago-area expressways. Some states for years have designated carpool lanes for use by vehicles with at least two occupants during rush periods. Elsewhere, toll lanes have been added on freeways to offer drivers the option to pay for faster travel times.
Here in the Chicago area, Pace has worked with IDOT to successfully use the shoulder of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) to provide faster bus trips between the southwest suburbs and downtown, and an expansion of the concept is being studied for the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway in the northwest suburbs.
The state is also planning an experiment to add toll lanes – scaling the toll to the amount of traffic – as part of a lane-expansion project on the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan Expressway and the I-355 toll highway. It’s a welcome, but long overdue effort in a region squeezed by traffic congestion for most hours of everyday.
Active Trans: What did you like best about covering transportation in Chicagoland?
Hilkevitch: I always tried to approach the transportation beat from the perspective of the consumer, because that was my audience. One of my favorite parts of the job was talking to and exchanging emails daily with commuters and other travelers. Some of the conversations led to stories; others simply prompted me to contact various transportation agencies to make them aware of problems and to urge them to fix them quickly. Most of the time, one phone call was all it took. The implied threat of an upcoming story was usually enough to get a bureaucrat moving.
Please join us as we honor Jon Hilkevitch and others at Active Trans’ 30th Anniversary Soirée.
Photo above courtesy of The Chicago Tribune.