09/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Green the 2016 Chicago Olympics

Like everyone else in Chicago watching the Beijing Olympic Games, I'm wondering how Chicago can pull off something like this in 2016. And I'm also wondering how it can be done in a way that minimizes damage to the lakefront and the air, and maximizes the ecological benefits. I'm also struck by how differently the environmental community has responded to the proposal, compared to the last time something like this was on the table.

In the early 1980s, civic leaders in Chicago were promoting another Chicago World's Fair, to be held in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage. Environmental and neighborhood activists rose up in opposition to the idea, arguing against further development on the lakefront and that such a mega-project would divert precious money and attention from the more urgent challenges facing the city. Behind the slogan "Who says the World's Fair?" the activists prevailed and Chicago pulled the plug on the 1992 World's Fair. (Chicago missed out on the World's Fair, but on April 13, 1992, when the Fair would have been getting underway, Chicagoans were treated to a different spectacle.)

So it's perhaps a testament to how city government has changed that, when the Daley administration announced its intent to bring the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago, environmental groups not only didn't oppose the idea, but offered to help the city improve the green elements of its bid. The selection committee will announce the host of the 2016 Games by October of next year.

But out-greening the other three finalist cities - Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro - will be hard to do. As reported by Kathy Bergen in the Chicago Tribune, Tokyo has already seen our "carbon-neutral" games and raised the ante to "carbon minus". And Madrid is promising to expand its subway and bicycle routes so that no private cars will be needed.
And if air quality was not a big consideration for the Olympic selection committee going into the Beijing games, it sure is now. Chicago's air quality, while much better than Beijing's, does not meet current federal standards for smog and soot.

So in this new spirit of collaboration, here are some suggestions for how to make the 2016 games into a big environmental plus for Chicago:

Rebuild the CTA. This is far and away the most important thing that Chicago can do, environmentally, in advance of hosting the Olympics. The continuing decline of the CTA may be the biggest challenge to Chicago's aspiration to be "America's Greenest City". Merely "fixing" the CTA doesn't seem to match the scale of how dramatically the service has deteriorated. I know hard-core pro-transit fanatics have been driven into their cars by the slow trains. What is needed, if Chicago truly wants a "world class" transit system, is a commitment to the bus and train network that is an order of magnitude beyond what was secured in the last round of budget negotiations/threats/begging in Springfield.

Seriously, Rebuid the CTA. In addition to rebuilt tracks and new trains, the CTA bus fleet also needs to be modernized. Can "America's Greenest City" run a fleet of buses powered entirely by fossil fuel? Really? Tens years ago, CTA was a genuine pioneer in experimenting with hydrogen fuel cell buses. Today, and for the foreseeable future, it's all diesel, all the time.

Crawford and Fisk. Can these dinosaurs still be running? The Crawford and Fisk power plants, in Little Village and Pilsen respectively, are coal-burning relics from the 1950s, the oldest electric power plants in the city limits, and feature Chicago's oldest and filthiest smokestacks. Other industries in the city were forced to clean up decades ago, but somehow these two have resisted all efforts to modernize. For years, neighbors and local doctors and nurses have been begging the plants' owner, Midwest Generation, to clean them up. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has hauled them into court. Even the U.S. EPA has lately piled on, and yet the plants keep churning out the smog, soot, mercury, etc. at levels that were made illegal for new plants thirty years ago. The state has recently given them until 2015 and 2018 to finish installing pollution controls. Mayor Daley should demand better.

Close LSD to Cars. Hard to envision traffic moving along on Lake Shore Drive with Olympic games going on in the park. So the remaining choices are to let cars on and watch it become one long parking lot, or close it off to private cars and turn it over to bicycles and buses. And maybe taxi cabs. (Can cabs and bikes safely share the road?) And watch these people get very excited about extending the experiment beyond the games.

Did we mention the CTA? While we're taking a fresh look at things that previously seemed impossible, how about free trains and buses? The CTA runs on an annual operating budget of roughly $1 billion, roughly half of which comes from fares and the other half from taxpayers. Doubling the taxpayer contribution, to allow free service, seems unrealistic, until you hear that Beijing just spent nearly $8 billion to improve its transit system in advance of the games.

Imagine all the money CTA spends maintaining the machines that issue and read fare cards, maintaining turnstiles, gates and fences, security against theft, etc. Now imagine all that money is saved. And now imagine how much faster boarding a bus would be with no one searching and fumbling for cards or bills, and people getting on the bus through both doors. Lots more people would ride the CTA. Which should make the automobile drivers, currently stuck in traffic on overcrowded highways, happy as well.

Climate Change and Carbon Credits. Do we have to talk about carbon credits? Surely, by 2016, the United States won't still be relying on voluntary programs to hold down carbon emissions. Given Tokyo's pledge to host a "carbon minus" Olympics, the question for Chicago is how low can we go? Improving the CTA is a great start. Planting more trees (the city has already planted half a million trees during the Daley administration) would also help. Anything that leads to less coal or less gasoline burned helps.

So how does Chicago pay for all this? I guess the first step is to ask where Beijing got $40 billion for new infrastructure, including nearly $20 billion spent on transit and renewable energy for Beijing in advance of these games. Of course, the Chinese economy is huge and rapidly growing. But on a per capita basis, they are still much poorer than we are here in the United States. Just like us, they had compelling, competing demands for that money. But they spent it on transit and renewable energy, because they chose to make those things a priority.