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Train Tracker Thoughts

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

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.

More Chicago transit data than you can handle

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

The folks at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) have done transit nerds yet another huge favor.  First it was their H+T Index, which was rolled into Abogo, their walkscore-esque tool that helps you measure your carbon footprint.  Now, they've gone and put an enormous collection of data online in an open, easy-to-use Transit-Oriented Development Database.  For lack of a better phrase, this is data porn.  Specifically, transit data.  You can look at every type of data imaginable for the areas within a quarter- or half-mile of any individual train station (what CNT calls the "transit zone" for that station) or collection of stations (the "transit shed").

I'll be rummaging through as much of the data as I can in the coming days and weeks (especially the job density statistics), but for now, here are a few tidbits to hold you over:

-- Based on 2000 population estimates, only about 1.15 million people live within a half-mile of L stations.  For reference: Chicago's population was about 2.9 million in 2000.  But keep in mind those 1.15 million include residents of Cicero, Oak Park, Skokie, and Evanston, where the L extends past Chicago's borders, so in reality an even smaller part of the city's population is transit-oriented.

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-- Although average density can be a very misleading statistic, it's useful in this sense: ideally, the areas near train stations should be significantly more dense than the city as a whole.  (Unless you're dealing with a uniformly-dense place like Manhattan, where even the low-density areas can support transit.)  Chicago's average density is about 13,000 people per square mile.  But as you can see above, nearly half of the 142 L stations have local densities (within 0.5 miles of the stop) under 13,440 people per square mile.  Granted, some of these stops are like O'Hare or Midway, but many of them are not.

-- 26 of the 27 densest stations by population are on the Red/Brown/Purple north side.  The lone outlier is Damen, on the Pink Line.

Much more to come, or add your own findings in the comments.


A Few words on Krywin v. CTA

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

I'd like to get in a few words on today's Illinois Supreme Court Case, essentially holding that the CTA is not responsible for shoveling or salting its platforms until whatever snow/sleet/hail/dreck is done falling from the skies in winter.  A lot of the court's decision [pdf] revolves around "natural accumulations" which, if you're like me, you'd think snow on the platform is always a natural accumulation.  And it is! Right up until it stops snowing and the wind starts to whip it around into drifts or the temperature changes and you get ice/slush.
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As a "common carrier" the CTA has special responsibilities toward its riders.  For instance, when buses pull up to the curb, they can't pull right up to the 4-foot high bank where all the plows pushed the snow (this is an unnatural accumulation) but instead must find a place where it's safer for passengers to get on and off.  A train obviously can't do this because it's on a fixed rail, and if it doesn't let passengers off at the platform, it can't let them off at all.

To me, the sensible extension of this logic is that the same standard should apply to every CTA mode--specifically the imperative to get passengers on and off safely. For the L, since they can't move the location of the stop to a safer one, they have to change the environment of the stop to make it safe--i.e. shovel or salt the platform at regular (but not onerous) intervals. But I'm not a judge, and instead the CTA is basically absolved of responsibility.

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Next Stop... Confluence?

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

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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City Knows How to Improve L Station Neighborhoods, Chooses Not To

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

One of the most effective ways to solve the last mile problem is transit oriented development, or TOD.  Or, if you're the CTA and the City of Chicago and just want to be different, you call it Transit Friendly Development, and you publish a toothless "guide" to improving the immediate vicinity of L stations around the city.  Without a single mention of "last mile" and putting forth only non-binding zoning considerations, the CTA, CDOT, and the Department of Zoning and Planning (DZLUP) have proven they can effectively give lip service to one of the most fundamental aspects of livability.

Leaving aside (for the moment) the issue of what--if any--actions the city will take going forward, it's important to see exactly what the city is advocating for.  First, the seven "typologies" they've outlined are Downtown Core (DC), Major Activity Center (MC), Local Activity Center (LC), Dense Urban Neighborhood (DN), Urban Neighborhood (UN), Service Employment District (SD), and Manufacturing Employment District (MD).  Stations are labeled not as what they are today, but as what the city sees them as becoming.

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How will we make it the "Last-Mile?"

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

In the past I've done a lot of CTA bashing, and even some Chicago bashing.  I don't intend to seem one sided.  I love my city, and think that as a whole it does many things well.  Today I want to talk about something that Chicago transit does better than some, but if they try hard enough, can do better than most; that is the concept of the "last-mile," in terms of transportation.


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A New Idea: the North Side Connector

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Lately I've been looking over the city's old and new plans for potential bus rapid transit lines.  There's one corridor I haven't seen the city or CTA explore in any studies or plans--an east-west connection on the Far North Side.  Just as a 79th street BRT line -or the Mid-City Transitway (MCT) alignment along a rail right-of-way near 75th--would connect the Far South Side to Midway, a North Side Connector (NSC) could connect the Rogers Park-Loyola area to O'Hare efficiently.

The isolation of Rogers Park is a quirk of land use and political boundaries.  First, the land use: the mile-wide swath of land east of the Edens between Foster and Peterson features a Nature Preserve (the LaBaugh Woods Forest Preserve,) 5 cemeteries (St. Boniface, Bethel, St. Luke, Bohemia National and the enormous Rosehill,) 2 university campuses (Northeastern Illinois and North Park,) and is split almost in half by the North Shore Channel.  Then, there's the quirk of Chicago's border with Lincolnwood, which dives south from Howard all the way to Devon along the canal.

The result is striking: the normally robust Chicago street grid hits all sorts of dead ends, and transit access suffers as a result.  The northernmost bus line that connects the lakefront to the Blue Line is the 92 along Foster.  The 84 along Peterson jogs northwest along Caldwell and never crosses the North Branch of the Chicago River, and the 155 along Devon ends at Kedzie, rather than cross the Canal into Lincolnwood.

There's a solution to this mess, and it lies in abandoned railways, just like the MCT.  In among the weaving highways at the Junction is the old Chicago & Northwestern Railway.  From its merger with the current Union Pacific lines running northwest/southeast at Montrose, it curves north and east with foundations visible as far north as Emerson St. in Evanston.  In order to connect Rogers Park, we'd only need the right-of-way between Lawrence and Devon.  This works very well, as the line makes its southernmost at-grade crossing at Devon just east of Pulaski.



View North Side Connector in a larger map

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3 Million Missed Opportunities

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

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Drowning in a sea of parking: the United Center's 6000+ parking spaces, and the proposed Madison & Paulina L stop in red. Image via Google Maps.

Tomorrow night the Blackhawks start their quest to bring the Stanley Cup back to Chicago for the first time in almost 50 years.  As it has been all season long, the United Center will be standing room only--20,000 committed fans.  And if you've ever been to the sea of asphalt surrounding the United Center, you know that the vast majority of them will arrive by car.  They'll clog the Madison exit on the Kennedy and the Damen exit on the Eisenhower.  They'll mostly arrive a few minutes before faceoff (or tipoff in last night's case,) they'll shell out at least $20 for parking, and when the game is over, they'll get back in their cars and curse the traffic as the neighborhood streets overflow.

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Convenient, I think not.

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.


We all have problems with the CTA.  Bus and train service cuts have affected our lives more than expected, the El cars smell like urine far too often, and the El bridges, especially those in the suburbs, look as if they might fall at any moment.  Through all of their many problems, however, the convenience factor of the CTA is the worst, and based on their current management, looks as if that convenience level may continue to decrease.


I'm not an economist, but the recent moves made by the CTA seem faulty.  As the CTA began to lose money, they decided to make service cuts and will soon raise prices.  As this happens, consumers such as I will use the CTA less frequently, thus decreasing their profits.  Soon the CTA will have to make even more service cuts and raise prices once again.  This seems to be a never-ending cycle of "death," and these illogical moves made by the CTA could eventually lead to their bankruptcy.


In my opinion, if the CTA wants to increase profits and end the cycle of "death," they must think of ways to increase riders, not decrease them.  Improving their convenience level is one way to do so.  I understand that with less capital, it is harder to pay the bus drivers, and thus harder to keep the same number of routes.  But if I have to wait a half-hour for a bus or train, I would much rather walk, ride my bike, or even pay for a cab.  Even if it means borrowing money, it is imperative that the CTA bring back the same level of service as a year ago.


Another way that the CTA is a perfect example of inconvenient public transportation is in regards to their monthly passes.  The CTA currently offers a 30-day pass for $86.  For some riders, this is a good deal.  Let's say these riders want to buy a pass, can they get it at any El station?  No, they can only buy online, at select Jewel or Dominick's, or at currency exchanges.  New York's MTA offers a monthly pass that you can buy at any station.  Boston's MBTA also offers a monthly pass that you can buy at any station.  San Francisco's MUNI offers a monthly pass that can be bought at 80% of their stations.  Why is the CTA lacking in this department?  If I rode the CTA enough to warrant buying a monthly pass, I wouldn't want to go to a currency exchange to buy one.  Little things like this, discourage riders and therefore make the CTA less profitable.  In addition, I guarantee you that most Chicagoans don't even know that the CTA offers a 30-day pass.  If they marketed their pass and sold it at every station, I'd put money down that they'd sell more.


Livable cities need efficient, profitable, and most importantly, convenient public transportation.  At this point, the CTA is none of the above.  If they don't get their act together soon, Chicago could become the next Los Angeles: the land of many cars and of 10 hour traffic.


The Straight Dope: Crooked on Transit

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

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I've long been an avid reader of the Chicago Reader's Straight Dope.  Cecil Adams and his minions generally do an admirable job of laying out the facts of the matter on issues large and small.  However, unless it was some kind of extended April Fool's joke whose punch line I missed, he (they?) really punted on the issue of transit vs. car efficiency.  It started back in January when Cecil was asked about mass transit energy consumption.  He started his response with two seemingly contradicting quotes--one from the American Public Transportation Association, and one from Randal O'Toole from the Cato Institute--and argues toward an unsatisfying middle by focusing on BTUs (British Thermal Units, a measure of energy) per passenger mile.  His straightforward argument is "true" as far as the numbers go, but completely ignores the problem with point source pollution (i.e. we can achieve economies of scale today via electrification of rapid transit and reduce pollution generally by powering transit with renewable sources, while the infrastructure necessary to do the same with private automobiles is still several years away at best.)

The Straight Dope barely redeems himself by mentioning that the pro-transit argument includes the idea that "transit promotes densely built-up cities, which we know will work from a transportation standpoint. (If all else fails, you can just walk or ride your bike.)" But he ultimately lets his "inner Ayn Rand" effectively side with O'Toole while ignoring the fact that there is no such thing as a free market when it comes to land use.

The ignorance continued on April 1, when he compared the L's energy usage to other mass transit systems around the nation, and then broke down the system by individual line.  First, the comparisons to several of the other systems are unfair and misleading.  New Jersey's PATH system, Boston's T, Philadelphia's SETPA, and LA's LACMTA have a combined 94.2 miles of track, while the L alone has 107.5 miles--this is an order of magnitude difference that wildly overestimates the efficiency of cities that have limited, (albeit high-ridership) transit options at the expense of the CTA's wider coverage area.  DC's Metro Rail numbers are also inflated for a reason I can't quite discern--its single-day ridership record of 1.12 million rides the day of Obama's Inauguration is the only day that system has ever had above their alleged "weekday average ridership" of 935,200.  Plus, all five of Metro's lines run to some pretty-far flung suburbs, so they should all work to drag the system down in the same way Cecil alleges the Purple Line does.  And yet, Metro survives--and at least by ridership metrics, it's thriving.

Finally, I'll be the first to admit that the L does not match the efficiency of New York's Subway--few systems in the world do.  But if we're trying to make the L more efficient, isn't the Chicago-New York disparity an argument for building out the system and encouraging density near stations to reach levels approaching the Big Apple's, not giving everyone a car to commute in by themselves as O'Toole would suggest?

Even more generally, Cecil makes a common and fatal flaw in his argument: he assumes the raison d'être for transit is the environmental advantage it yields over private motorized commuting.  The point of transit--and the entire concept of urbansim/livability/whatever you want to call it--is about fundamentally changing the geometry of how we live our lives.*  If we only take into account travel on an average weekday, we fail to appreciate transit for how it improves our lives 7 days a week, 365 days a year, throughout our lives.  It lets kids who can't yet drive get around without relying on their parents to drive them.  It lets seniors maintain a high standard of living even after they lose the ability to drive themselves around.  Transit lets the rest of us leave the car snugly snowed into a parking spot when the lake effect snow piles up--if we own a car at all.  It keeps drunk drivers from tragically taking lives on the weekends.   And as smart phones and other devices make us more productive during transit, transit gives parents more time to spend with their kids.

If Cecil Adams and Randal O'Toole won't think of the kids, I certainly will (mostly because I still think of myself as one, and I'm selfish that way.)

* Through all this, I haven't even gotten into the fact that paving over all of god's creation just so we can drive and park anywhere at any time is not a sustainable idea.

Environmental Determinism in Chicago (Part II - The Built Environment)

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

When it comes to the kinds of land-use changes necessary to promote livability in Chicago, there are two main obstacles greater than our city's propensity for cynicism and its forbearer, corruption: the natural and built environments.  In the Part I, I covered Chicago's natural geography.  Next up: the built environment.  The built environment we see today is the result of over 170 years of decisions by private citizens and the municipal government--some coordinated and well thought-out, some not.  Just as the natural environment was easily understood as the combination of three distinct types, we can split up the man-made city that surrounds us into  roads, railways, and buildings.  Some of the built environment works to Chicago's advantage, some of it to the city's detriment.

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All the pieces fit together. Image courtesy of subbu4 on flickr

Roads
For more than a century, Chicago's famous street grid has primed it for walkable development.  I won't recount Jane Jacobs' entire argument for why short blocks improve the cityscape, but briefly, if you're walking somewhere that isn't simply down the street a few blocks, every corner you reach gives you the opportunity to turn and encounter a different micro-neighborhood, a different set of retailers, and different people.  This makes streets and sidewalks more exciting, provides for more commercial opportunities, and generally adds to the vibrancy of a city.

Unfortunately, we also have highways carving up the streetscape.  I'm not going to say that we should get rid of highways--they serve their purpose.  However, there's a point at which they do more harm than good, and that point usually comes where there is or could be a perfectly good urban neighborhood which is instead cut to shreds by 8 lanes of speeding metal.  The best (worst?) current examples of this are the Kennedy south of Belmont and the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Drive.  The Kennedy because it creates a no man's land just west of the North Branch of the Chicago River--as I mentioned in part I, some re-zoning around the river would be necessary to really take advantage of this space--and the Stevenson because of the way it chokes off the Near South Side from Douglas.  (Compare this with how the Kennedy feeds into Ohio and the upcoming Congress Parkway redesign resist isolating the Loop further.)

Railways
Chicago was built on the back of the railroad boom in the 19th century, and the remnants of this history still shape our city in significant ways.  From the enormous Belt Railway Company Yard south of Midway to Canada Pacific's stagnant Bloomingdale Trail and the numerous Metra lines, rail rights-of-way take up significant real estate.  The CREATE Program will clear up some of the bottlenecks that come with this level of complex infrastructure, but by and large railroads are simply something we have to work with and around in order to have a growing economy.  There is also, of course, the L, maybe the defining characteristic of the Chicago built environment (along with the Sears Tower.)  We'll have plenty more to say about the L, as it's just as vital a part of the people economy in Chicago as the freight lines are to our local industry.

Buildings
Between the loop's skyscrapers and the familiar brownstones throughout the city, much of the city is built up nicely.  It allows for a wide variation in densities, from the incredible diversity of the areas around the Loop, to the almost suburban single family homes in Sauganash.  But there's also plenty of opportunity for urban infill, especially where surface parking has blighted the land around L stops.  There's no reason why the same 3- and 4-story mixed use development which has spurred non-bubble growth in many American cities in the last decade can't be replicated along various corridors here.  Developers are finally coming around to the economic merits of this type of construction, but it's up to the city to meet them halfway in terms of up-zoning areas which are well-served by transit so they can start building in a more economically and environmentally sustainable way.

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