Elevating Chicago

Washington, DC Archives

Train Tracker Thoughts

As you've probably heard by now, the CTA will introduce a Train Tracker pilot program in the next month or so.  This is, undoubtedly, terrific news.  But until we get further details about the system and can play around with it, I'd like to present some ideas/potential pratfalls for the new system.

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--Location, location, location.  How the CTA places these screens at stations is vital to their usefulness.  Obviously one at platform level is vital--always good to know how much longer you'll be standing in the cold.  The question is, where should the street-level screen go?

I'd say there are really only two locations to choose from.  One, facing the fare gates (or just outside them) and clearly visible before you pay your fare.  The second is physically outside the station.  For elevated stations, the station entrance is usually directly below the tracks, so a screen that is visible as you approach on the sidewalk would be protected from the elements (and could be protected from birds easily enough).  Similarly, at subway stations, a screen visible before going below ground would be best--though since most stations have multiple entrances, the cost of placing a display at every one may not be worth it.

--Online.  Since this is only a pilot and there won't be displays at every station, making Train Tracker easily available online is the only way most riders will interact with the system.  And most of those people will be checking the site on their mobile phone, so it's even more crucial that the interface be top notch.  Washington, DC does a fantastic job in this regard.  Here's their mobile site.  It's easy to navigate and almost entirely text, so it loads quickly, even on a slow network. The only thing I'd add would be an auto-refresh option--if the arrival times will update every 25 seconds, set the refresh period to 30.

--Open Source.  Considering the success of 3rd party applications (not to mention the manifold uses for the Bus Tracker API), there's no reason not to release the QuickTrak/Train Tracker data similarly.

--Depth of Information.  Looking at the mockup screenshots the CTA includes in their press release, it looks like we'll get 6 pieces of information: time of the last update, current temperature, line, direction, run number, and estimated time of arrival.

I'd push for 2 more pieces of information: one, give the update time down to the second.  I know the ETA isn't necessarily going to be accurate down to the second, but keep in mind: if the "as of" time is only accurate to the minute, and ETAs are accurate to within 30-45 seconds, you're looking at almost a 2 minute margin of error.  The CTA says the displays will update every 20-30 seconds, so why not tell us exactly when it last queried the system, and cut the margin of error in half?

Second, the displays should include the number of cars in the train that's about to arrive.  It may seem like a small thing, but if you know the length of the train, you can figure out whether or not you can spread out from everyone else along the platform, without having to catch up to the final door as it slides by you.  I actually asked the CTA about this over the summer, and here's the crux of their response:

"One of the purposes of the pilot would be to test the different capabilities of the program. At this time there are no plans to display the number of rail cars on an approaching train - some of the LED signs used for the program  pose character limitations for the additional information and adjustments are often made based on special events or circumstances on a particular day on a particular line that requires rail operations to deviate from what is normally put into service."

Ok, some of the signs can't hold that much information.  (Again, I think DC is instructive here: the displays have all the screen resolution of a game of pong, but they still manage to fit the number of cars.)  But why not make sure the system is at least disseminating this data, and then program each display based on its capabilities? The CTA could still include this information online, which is the only way people will get the info anyway if they're not at a pilot station.  Additionally, the CTA wrote:

"We have a schedule that designates how many cars are in each consist on any train based on ridership demands [sic].  However, this plan is subject to change - adjustments are often made based on special events or circumstances on a particular day on a particular line that requires rail operations to deviate from what is normally put into service.  This is not something that we would be able to provide."

Well, that's a relief--the CTA has a schedule, but are willing to deviate from it depending on the day's circumstances.  And when they deviate, they no doubt know the new trainset's length.  So as that train makes its way through the system, this shouldn't be a hard piece of data to include, right?

Additionally, it'll be interesting to see how Train Tracker handles arrivals.  In Washington, DC, there's both an "ARR" notation just before the train enters the station, and then a "BRD" as the train stops and opens its doors.  Whether or not the CTA can give that kind of granularity depends on whether or not there's a sensor at the entrance to the station, but we'll see.

Finally, a bonus for any programmers out there: if and when the API is released, it's screaming for an animation of Tower 18's operations (that's the intersection of Wells & Lake).  I'll take a stab at this, but if you write it, I will pimp the hell out of it here, on twitter, and anywhere else people will listen.

An Open Letter to Gabe Klein

Dear Mr. Klein,

I heard that come January 1, you'll be out of a job.  What a bummer.  But Washington's loss has to be someone's gain, right? Have you thought about Chicago?

First, let me level with you: Yes, we get snow regularly.  But we know better than to proclaim a snowfall as "Snowmageddon" until it's over 2 feet.  We have the infrastructure to clear it--and a populace that isn't afraid to use a shovel (perhaps you remember one of our former residents referring to our "flinty toughness"?)  And yes, as a result, we get enough potholes to make driving more painful than a trip to the dentist.  But we're already the home of Lollapalooza, why not bring your famed (?) Potholepalooza to town?

But!                                      Gabe Klein Dreaming.png

You may not have heard, but we're gonna have a new Mayor here next year.  You joined Mayor Fenty's staff in Washington halfway through his term and accomplished a ton.  Imagine getting in at the start of a new mayor's term (our first new Mayor in over 2 decades!) and having nearly free reign, since the new Mayor's priorities will likely be on reducing crime and improving the school system.

Although actual policy statements have been rare thus far in the campaign, everyone agrees that the Mayor's office needs to become more open.  You helped bring DDOT into the 21st century by actually establishing a twitter presence, opening data sets to the public, and more--CDOT needs that kind of reform badly.

You can be the first great Transportation Commissioner here since... well, it's been a damn long time.  We've had repeated turnover in the job in recent years as Mayor Daley tires of each new placeholder.  While they've all mostly moved the ball forward on incremental reforms, it's only been at the whim of a Mayor whose attention is obviously divided.  So while we have a bike plan (which DC's now almost dwarfs when you consider the disparity in size between the cities themselves), and a Central Area Action Plan, and even a few Streetscape plans, no one has laid out the grand vision that Chicago needs to become a city that works for everyone--not just drivers--once again.

And just think: You won't have to fight anymore turf wars.  The National Parks Service won't claim jurisdiction over every random triangle park or circle and then fail to maintain it.  Though there are certainly NIMBYs here like anywhere else, there's no Committee of 100 to try to thwart you at every turn.  It's all yours.  We only have a few diagonal avenues to break up our lovely street grid, a fantastic slate upon which you can build a shining beacon of Bus Rapid Transit, bicycle infrastructure, and whatever else you want.

Speaking of bike infrastructure, did I mention Chicago's topography? We're flat.  Utterly, completely, incredibly flat.  When you try to push out a bike sharing program (because I'm sure Alta would be more than willing to work with you again to bring their system to America's third largest city), you'll never have to worry about overcrowding at stations at the bottom of hills--there aren't any.

You've worked hard to bridge gaps between the rich and poor areas of DC, promoting capital-intensive projects like the new streetcar lines in the worse-off areas, hoping to spur improvement.  Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and it's high time our transportation options linked these areas rather than divided them.

So go take your vacation in January (you've clearly earned it).  And when you get back, come by and leave your card with the Mayoral frontrunners.  It'll be one less tough decision for them, and one new fantastic opportunity for you.

21st Century Mobility for Chicago

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on "21st Century Mobility" at the Goethe Institute in Washington, DC.  (Note they actually pronounce it 'Ger-te' there, not the real way of 'Go-thee' like we do.)  David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington and Professor Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech were the speakers, and it was a great way to spend an evening.  They filmed the session, but I haven't yet seen it posted anywhere--I'll update if I find it (let me know if you do!) The discussion mostly focused on activities in DC and throughout Germany, but they touched on a lot of widely applicable ideas.  DC is a mess when it comes to overlapping jurisdictions, and Germany obviously doesn't have the same governmental structure, so only some of them can really be applied to Chicago.




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Forget 'Swimming in the Potomac,' Let's Learn from the Anacostia

News surfaced in the Tribune on Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency is calling on the city to clean up the Chicago River to the point of making it not only safe for boats but for swimmers as well.  Mayor Daley had a simple retort to the feds: "Go Swim in the Potomac."

Where the Feds won't swim: DC's Anacostia River before the recent cleanup. Photo Courtesy of the Anacostia Watershed Society.


My sympathies are with the Mayor on this one.  The city has made great strides in improving not just the river but the land surrounding it.  They continue to work every day, and have plans in place with the help of CMAP's Waterway Management guidance.  Whether or not the EPA passed this statement along to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, Chicago was going to keep on working toward the Chicago River becoming "swimmable." (There's a separate issue here about the necessity of making the river truly "swimmable."  I'd happily go kayaking along the river if I knew it was safe to occasionally fall overboard to cool myself off.  But I have a feeling that when it comes to swimming in natural waters, Lake Michigan does the trick for most Chicagoans.)

But let's take the Mayor's retort for more than the glib sound bite that it is.

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Give it up for the Little Guys

Last Friday, several dozen cyclists rode to the US Department of Transportation's headquarters in Washington with a signed letter by hundreds of local bike-ped advocacy organizations, showing their love for Secretary of Transportation LaHood's commitment to their causes.  Read about it here.  Many organizations that Ted and I routinely promote, such as: Safe Routes to School National Partnership, Transportation for America, and the National Complete Streets Coalition, were among the advocates in attendance.  Whether they'd admit it or not, their trip to US DOT's headquarters was in essence sucking up to LaHood and lauding him for his commitment to what these organizations are fighting for.  I have nothing wrong with this, especially because no money was involved, and I support these advocacy organizations in their fight to get their voices heard - today I want to talk about these organizations and how we can all help in their fight.

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Lahood w/ Obama

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Next Stop... Confluence?

We're #1!  We're #1!  We have the shortest transit stop names of any of the major systems in the US!  Seriously, why aren't we celebrating this?  Ok, not seriously.  But last week Greater Greater Washington contributor Matt Johnson compared station name lengths around the country to make the point that DC's names are too long.  Meanwhile, L stops have the shortest names in the country averaging just 8.3 characters, almost 2 fewer than Philadelphia's second-ranked SEPTA system.  In fact, our margin is so big, I'd argue we have room to grow our station names and actually increase the clarity of our map.

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