Chicago bonfire rules

I believe that more people are hosting more backyard bonfires in Chicago in order to spend time with friends outdoors, because it’s one of the lowest risk ways to still enjoy life during the COVID-19 pandemic that Trump is prolonging.

The City of Chicago has rules on what can be burned. Be sensitive to neighbors who rely in keeping their windows open to cool and ventilate their homes.

The summary version is this: You can burn manufactured firewood that you purchased, and you can burn wood logs from any trees someone manually cut. All logs have to be untreated and two feet long or shorter.

You can’t burn scrap wood, lumber, plywood, or particle board. You also cannot burn garbage. Avoid having bonfires when the wind speed is 15 miles per hour or faster.

Read all the rules in this PDF. The rules aren’t in the municipal code; the code in section 11-4-740 says that the environment commissioner shall make rules (Chicago doesn’t currently have a department of environment).

This is my process to improve the performance of my PostgreSQL database and queries

Every now and then I’ll run the queries below to help me figure out ways to optimize the queries my application is using, and to figure out if certain tables and views (relations) need to be optimized.

/* Show the last time at which every table and view was vacuumed and analyzed */
SELECT relname, last_vacuum, last_autovacuum, last_analyze, last_autoanalyze  
FROM pg_stat_all_tables  d_d
WHERE schemaname = 'public';  

/* See which queries are most popular */
SELECT * FROM pg_stat_statements where calls >=1000; /* replace 1000 with any integer, depending on how active your database is queried */
select pg_stat_statements_reset();

/* Kill a specific query */
select pg_terminate_backend(INTEGER); /* replace INTEGER with the process ID of a specific query */

/* Get the size of the database */
select pg_size_pretty(pg_database_size('DATABASE_NAME')); /* replace DATABASE_NAME with the name of your database */

/* Kill queries that are taking too long; replace DATABASE_NAME with the name of your database */
SELECT query, pg_terminate_backend(pid) 
    FROM pg_stat_activity 
    WHERE datname = 'DATABASE_NAME' 
      AND pid <> pg_backend_pid() 
      AND (state = 'active' 
      OR state = 'idle') 
      AND state_change < current_timestamp - INTERVAL '15' MINUTE; /* change 15 to any integer that you think means a query is taking too long */

/* See which queries are running */
select * from pg_stat_activity;
SELECT * FROM pg_stat_activity WHERE wait_event IS NOT NULL AND backend_type = 'client backend';

/* Find very large indexes and indexes that aren't used much */
WITH table_scans as ( 
    SELECT relid, 
        tables.idx_scan + tables.seq_scan as all_scans, 
        ( tables.n_tup_ins + tables.n_tup_upd + tables.n_tup_del ) as writes, 
                pg_relation_size(relid) as table_size 
        FROM pg_stat_user_tables as tables 
),
all_writes as ( 
    SELECT sum(writes) as total_writes 
    FROM table_scans 
),
indexes as ( 
    SELECT idx_stat.relid, idx_stat.indexrelid, 
        idx_stat.schemaname, idx_stat.relname as tablename, 
        idx_stat.indexrelname as indexname, 
        idx_stat.idx_scan,
        pg_relation_size(idx_stat.indexrelid) as index_bytes, 
        indexdef ~* 'USING btree' AS idx_is_btree 
    FROM pg_stat_user_indexes as idx_stat 
        JOIN pg_index 
            USING (indexrelid) 
        JOIN pg_indexes as indexes 
            ON idx_stat.schemaname = indexes.schemaname 
                AND idx_stat.relname = indexes.tablename 
                AND idx_stat.indexrelname = indexes.indexname 
    WHERE pg_index.indisunique = FALSE 
),
index_ratios AS ( 
SELECT schemaname, tablename, indexname, 
    idx_scan, all_scans,
    round(( CASE WHEN all_scans = 0 THEN 0.0::NUMERIC 
        ELSE idx_scan::NUMERIC/all_scans * 100 END),2) as index_scan_pct, 
    writes,
    round((CASE WHEN writes = 0 THEN idx_scan::NUMERIC ELSE idx_scan::NUMERIC/writes END),2) 
        as scans_per_write, 
    pg_size_pretty(index_bytes) as index_size, 
    pg_size_pretty(table_size) as table_size, 
    idx_is_btree, index_bytes
    FROM indexes 
    JOIN table_scans 
    USING (relid) 
),
index_groups AS ( 
SELECT 'Never Used Indexes' as reason, *, 1 as grp 
FROM index_ratios 
WHERE
    idx_scan = 0
    and idx_is_btree 
UNION ALL 
SELECT 'Low Scans, High Writes' as reason, *, 2 as grp 
FROM index_ratios 
WHERE
    scans_per_write <= 1
    and index_scan_pct < 10 
    and idx_scan > 0 
    and writes > 100 
    and idx_is_btree 
UNION ALL 
SELECT 'Seldom Used Large Indexes' as reason, *, 3 as grp 
FROM index_ratios 
WHERE
    index_scan_pct < 5
    and scans_per_write > 1 
    and idx_scan > 0 
    and idx_is_btree 
    and index_bytes > 100000000 
UNION ALL 
SELECT 'High-Write Large Non-Btree' as reason, index_ratios.*, 4 as grp 
FROM index_ratios, all_writes 
WHERE
    ( writes::NUMERIC / ( total_writes + 1 ) ) > 0.02 
    AND NOT idx_is_btree 
    AND index_bytes > 100000000 
ORDER BY grp, index_bytes DESC ) 
SELECT reason, schemaname, tablename, indexname, 
    index_scan_pct, scans_per_write, index_size, table_size
FROM index_groups; 

My investment in crowdfunded projects hasn’t gone well

A second project that I invested in through the crowdfunding portal, Small Change, has “failed”. It’s a project for a worker-owned bed and breakfast. According to the project owner, the project needed more funds than what they were able to obtain from Small Change investors and other investors. The owner found a new investor, who required that all Small Change investors be removed from the project. They announced that to us earlier this year, and said we would receive our initial investment + 3%.

The Small Change leadership didn’t think this plan was good enough, starting with disagreeing the removal of Small Change investors.

Eventually, the project owner returned our initial investment + 8%. I don’t know if the project owner had the right to cancel and return our investments, but I’m happy to have my money back + 8%.

I’m disappointed in the ultimate outcome of not being able to participate in 1476 Magazine because this is the second project I invested in via Small Change that has not succeeded. The first was for a group of three single-family houses built to a high energy efficiency standard that have not yet sold.

I have an investment in a third project (in Philadelphia) that is converting a disused industrial building into mixed-use with residential and I hope that one succeeds, but I haven’t received an update since it was funded. Update: I inquired and the project owner sent me the update they sent in the last couple of months, which I seemed to have missed.

Golaski Labs in Philadelphia. A Small Change poster advertises the project. The photo was taken in 2018, and significant progress has been made since then.


I believe in the Small Change mission, and crowdfunding broadly, but once I made my third investment I paused so that I could wait to see what happens with all of the projects.

Chicago’s Best Landlords, Inc.

3901 W Jackson Blvd / Chicago’s Best Landlord, Inc.
A 12-flat in West Garfield Park, Chicago.

I’m halfway done reading the book, “Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America“, by Beryl Satter, and I’ve started keeping a list of all the places she mentions.

The book is about her father, and the history of racist housing policies and displacement in Chicago’s West Side. Mark Satter, who died of heart problems when he was 49, owned several properties in Lawndale and Garfield Park.

One of them was a 12-flat in West Garfield Park at 3901 W Jackson Blvd, one block west of the eponymous park. Mark died in 1965, and the properties reverted to a trust he had set up, controlled by his wife, Clarice. Mired in debt to contractors and the mortgage, Clarice had family friend, Irving Block, sell the four properties.

3901 W Jackson Blvd eventually became the property of L.J. Epstein, a known slumlord, in 1967. (It’s unclear in the book, and online deed records don’t go that far back, if it was owned by someone else between Clarice selling it and L.J. acquiring it.)

Less than two years later, though, because of L.J.’s neglect of the building, Judge Kral placed it in receivership because of the activism of Ruby Kirk, a Black tenant from Tennessee.

The judge made Ruby the receiver, because the judge perceived that she cared about the building more than the owner. Ruby created a non-profit corporation on Monday, September 22, 1969, called “Chicago’s Best Landlord, Inc.” (It was involuntarily dissolved on February 1, 2003.)

Beryl wrote that during the remodel the corporation’s name was engraved into the stone above the front door. Along with the initials of the tenants at the time. As I was reading it I thought that stone had to still be there, and since I was biking over to Garfield Park for some hot air balloon training with a couple friends, I would stop by.

Ruby was also successful in pressing First National Bank of Chicago to issue a loan to her, a Black woman, when banks refused to lend to Black people as the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure the loans. If you’re from around here, you may remember that First National Bank merged with Banc One to become Bank One, which then became part of Chase. Chase is the second largest loan issuer in Chicago, and still has a “hard time” lending to Black people. It was also then, however, that the federal rules changed and FHA would insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods.

3901 W Jackson Blvd / Chicago’s Best Landlord, Inc.
Enjoy this little piece of Chicago history -> book -> real-life-right-now photo. Ruby Kirk’s initials are in the center.

Chicago’s Best Landlord, Inc. owned the 12-flat from 1969 until 2001, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) foreclosed the property. First National Bank had assigned the mortgage to HUD in 1976.

Peter Gritzanis purchased the property for $270,000, according to the deed recorded on June 28, 2001, at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office. It looks like Peter stopped owning it in 2012.

Chicago’s Lake Street ‘L’ was originally supposed to be a monorail

I bought a copy of The “L”: The Development of Chicago’s Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932, written by Bruce Moffat, a historian of electric trains in Chicago. Moffat currently works for the Chicago Transit Authority. (If there wasn’t a pandemic, you’d be able to request a hold on one of the 50 copies at the Chicago Public Library.)

The book is about the elevated trains that were built in Chicago, in competition with the street omnibuses (horse drawn), railways (cable cars and streetcars), and suburban trains (okay, some competition), prior to establishing the Chicago Transit Authority. The CTA is a State of Illinois authority, created by the legislature, that today owns and operates all of the historic and since-built elevated, subway, and at-grade ‘L’ transit as well as buses. It acquired all of the assets of all of the ‘L’, streetcar, and bus companies that were operating when it was established in 1945.

On with the story!

Back in December 1888, the Chicago City Council approved a franchise for the Lake Street Elevated Company to build a Meigs Elevated Railway above Lake Street from Canal Street to 40th Avenue (later named Crawford and now Pulaski Road), then the western border of Chicago. A tract of land west of 40th Avenue (Pulaski Road) was incorporated into the City of Chicago four months later on April 29, 1889.

If you go to the intersection of Canal and Lake Streets today you’ll see the Union Pacific railroad tracks above, heading into and out of Ogilvie Transportation Center, a skyscraper at 444 W Lake Street, a cigar store, and a vintage loft office building.

The Meigs Elevated Railway was a steam-powered elevated monorail – meaning each track had one rail to support a train.

You may not know this: I love monorails. When my family visited Walt Disney World my favorite ride was the inter-park and world famous monorail. I’ve also ridden the monorails in Disneyland (but I don’t remember my time there), Las Vegas, Seattle, Düsseldorf airport, Wuppertal, and three in Tokyo, Japan (Chiba City, Shonan, and Haneda airport; I missed the one in Tama).

I used to be obsessed with monorails. I became a member of The Monorail Society when I was a teenager and my first eBay purchase was a Disney monorail motorized toy in March 2000. I was jealous of my friends in elementary school who had a Lego monorail, and now they regularly sell for $200. I also built a SAFEGE-style monorail out of K’NEX in high school.

Drawing of the Meigs Elevated Railway monorail.
A drawing of the Meigs Elevated Railway monorail, originally published in Scientific American, July 10, 1886. Via Wikipedia; also printed in Moffat’s book where it is sourced from Railway Age, a trade journal founded in 1856 that still exists today.

It was invented by Josiah V. Meigs in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a 227-foot long demonstration line was built in 1886 on land that is now a Fairfield Inn hotel and before that was the Genoa Packing Co. (demolished in 2013).

The Meigs Elevated Railway Wikipedia article has two photos of a plaque that was on the exterior wall of the Genoa Packing Co. The new hotel building does not have the same plaque.

The Lake Street Elevated Company organizers (seven incorporators are listed in the book) hired Morris H. Alberger to be the president. According to Moffat’s book, “Alberger had convinced his fellow directors that their railroad should use an experimental and relatively complex elevated railway system developed by Joe V. Meigs”. Alberger was also the president of the Meigs Elevated Railway Company.

Moffat discusses an eighth company organizer: Michael Cassius McDonald, “politically well connected and influential”. He was the “chief sponsor” and “promoter” of the Lake Street elevated proposal which came to be known as “Mike’s Upstairs Railroad”.

The Meigs Electric Railway – the monorail – was never built. Moffat says that the reason the monorail was never built was because it was difficult to promote and raised funds by selling shares.

Almost a year after City Council approved the MER to run over Lake Street, they “deleted the Meigs requirement” in November 1890 so that the Lake Street Elevated Company could build a traditional iron structure. The trains would also be “traditional”. (The first elevated train started running in Manhattan and the Bronx on August 26, 1878 – that was the Third Avenue Elevated – ten years prior to the Meigs monorail being approved in Chicago.)

Even before City Council “deleted” the franchise’s requirement to build a monorail, the Lake Street Elevated Company had already started building the iron structure for a train in December 1889, at Lake and Clinton Streets, where the Clinton Green Line station is now.

That’s the end of the story for the monorail, but I’ll continue talking about the Lake Street ‘L’.

The Lake Street Elevated opens!

Construction had reached “just west of Ashland Avenue” by October 1892, less than three years after the first iron girder was erected at Clinton. A year after that last construction milestone at Ashland, the tracks for service were completed to California Avenue (2800 West).

The Lake Street Elevated Company’s first service was set to begin on October 30, 1893. The opening was delayed, however, until an inauguration on Saturday, November 4, 1893, to mourn the death of Mayor Carter Harrison, who was assassinated during his fifth term. Passenger service began two days later on Monday, November 6, 1893.

Service was extended into the Loop elevated tracks in 1895.

Map of the Lake Street Elevated, from Market Street (now Wacker Drive) to Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard.
Map of the Lake Street Elevated, from Market Street (now Wacker Drive) to Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard.

Heading closer to downtown Chicago

In early 1893, the Lake Street Elevated Company wanted to run their trains down Market Street (now Wacker Drive) from Lake Street to Madison Street.

Photograph showing the elevated stub track on Market Street. The view is looking east along Lake Street at Market Street, where the elevated train would turn south.
Photograph showing the elevated stub track on Market Street. The view is looking east along Lake Street at Market Street, where the elevated train would turn south. Photo taken by a Chicago Daily News, Inc., photographer in 1908. The caption in the Explore Chicago Collections database says,

The Market Street “stub” ran past the future site of the Civic Opera Building, opened in November 1929. Operagoers and workers in the office tower of the building would have ridden the ‘L’ here until the Chicago Transit Authority

The Lake Street Elevated’s Market Street stub terminated at Madison Street. The Civic Opera Building is on the left. Image is from the CTA’s collection. Market Street was renamed Wacker Drive when the street was reconstructed as a double decker street starting in 1948.

Extending further into the Garfield Park neighborhood

Tracks were built six blocks west of California Avenue, to Homan Avenue, but the stations were incomplete. Service to the Homan station started November 24, 1893, and four blocks further west to Hamlin Avenue in January 1894.

The Homan Avenue station no longer exists. Today’s Green Line over Lake Street was rebuilt from 1994 to 1996 and the Homan station was abandoned. According to Chicago “L”.org, the CTA decided to move the station two blocks west to Central Park Drive (3600 West). It was “completely deconstructed in spring of 2000 and put into storage”. It was renovated, made accessible, and opened as the Conservatory-Central Park Drive station in June 2001.

Chicago “L”.org notes that this visitors access to the Garfield Park Conservatory, evens out stop spacing, but does not intersect a bus route which Homan Ave does. The CTA closed Hamlin station on March 18, 1956. I don’t know when it was demolished.

Onward, to Austin and Oak Park!

Back to the Lake Street elevated timeline. Serviced operated to Hamlin Avenue in 1894. The next year it was operating to 52nd Avenue (now Laramie Avenue), the western boundary of Chicago. On the other side of that boundary was the Township of Cicero. Austin, a township neighborhood, was annexed by Chicago in 1899. The Village of Oak Park eventually emerged from the township, incorporating in 1902.

Austin was location of Cicero’s town hall. The town hall building, at the Central and Lake station, is now part of the Austin Town Hall Park and Cultural Center, owned and operated by the Chicago Park District.

Austin Town Hall in Chicago, Illinois
Austin Town Hall, the former town hall of the Township of Cicero. Photo taken in 2019 by Eric Allix Rogers.

Moffat’s book describes a lot of political controversy about extending the Lake Street Elevated into Cicero, which seems fitting for the Chicago region. Passenger service to Austin Avenue (now Boulevard) started April 19, 1899.

The next month, on May 14, 1989, trains that ran east-west above Lake Street came down a ramp – to the surface – onto north-south Lombard Avenue a couple of blocks south to Randolph Street. They turned west onto Randolph Street and continued until Wisconsin Avenue/Marion Street. The tracks on Randolph Street were in the middle of the street, and owned by Suburban Railroad, an interurban railway company.

The tracks were previously owned by Chicago, Harlem & Batavia Railway. I’m including that information because I grew up there. However, the railroad never made it that far: “No effort was made to extend the railroad to that distance place, but money was spent to purchase new locomotives and passenger cars and make other improvements.”

Residents here had the option of taking trains into downtown Chicago on the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. Those tracks are now owned by Union Pacific, which also operates the former C&NW lines as Metra’s UP-West Line. The line terminates at Ogilvie Transportation Center, which used to be called Northwestern Station, which was C&NW’s second location for their downtown terminal.

Moffat discussed these passengers’ choices, writing, “Although a ride on the nearby Chicago & Northwestern was faster, the “L’s” more frequent schedule, convenient Loop stops, and lower fare drew many riders away from the steam railroad”. The same is true today; the ‘L’ costs less than Metra but takes longer to reach the West Loop.

The story about the construction and operation of the Lake Street Elevated is almost done. I’m going to end it as soon as the train reaches the current terminus at Harlem Avenue in Oak Park.

Service to Marion Street started in late January 1901, on the street level of South Boulevard, thus ending service on Randolph Street a few blocks south. Trains started servicing the Harlem station on May 20, 1910. Remember that the reason the trains are now on South Boulevard is because Lake Street runs with a slight northwest diagonal, ends at the Chicago & Northwestern Railway embankment, and resumes a few blocks west. In 1961, the line was elevated onto C&NW’s embankment.

Even though the station is currently called “Harlem/Lake”, the station is at Harlem/South Boulevard, and Lake Street is one block north.


N.B.

Meigs’s railway was mentioned in an op-ed in the Boston Globe Magazine on Sunday, February 23, 1992, as the newspapers’s architecture critic, Robert Campbell, and Peter Vanderwarker, an architectural historian, lamented the towering car infrastructure proposed in the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also known as “Big Dig”, the most expensive highway construction in the country), as well as the darkening effect of the elevated trains. It’s really quite an essay.

The op-ed in the Boston Globe Magazine, 2/23/1992

But competition was vicious. Arson and vandalism hampered Meigs, as did his insistence on old-fashioned steam power instead of electricity. Nothing besides the Cambridge test line was ever built. The Meigs monorail made its last run in 1894. Conventional elevated trains, modeled on those of Manhattan and far more massive than Meigs’, soon darkened Boston’s streets.

[snipped]

By the end of this decade, the view will have changed radically. A dramatic Babel of steel and concrete, perhaps resembling a great sports stadium, will rise like a gray mountain in the middle distance at the left of the photo. The introverted automobile will have won its long battle for supremacy over the sociable train.

“MEIGS ELEVATED RAILWAY – Changing TRACKS”, By Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker

Meigs Field, a former airport in downtown Chicago that existed between 1948 and 2003, was named after Merrill C. Meigs, a pilot and former head of the Chicago Aero Commission. He believed that Chicago needed a third airport, within 10 minutes of downtown. The airport was built and named after Meigs in 1949. I haven’t found a relationship between the two Meigs.

Damn, Metra is expensive

tl;dr: Metra costs nearly twice as much for the same trip

I went to Pullman today for a preservation organization’s task force meeting hosted by Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. Their office is in this weird US Bank office high-rise surrounded by open space, a golf course, warehouses, and an interstate.

There are many ways to get there. Some people drove their own cars from nearby neighborhoods, others shared a ride hail car, and I and at least one other person rode Metra, the region’s commuter rail service.

The Metra Electric District line has fast service between its downtown terminal at Millennium Station and 111th Street (Pullman), scheduled for a 36 minute run. The MED is Metra’s most regional rail-like service, with several electric train services per hour during some hours.

I rode a Divvy shared bike from the station nearest my office (300 feet away) to Millennium Station – in order to get to the station faster – and boarded the Metra about five minutes before it departed.

Us Bank tower in Pullman

Taking CTA, a separate transit operator in Chicagoland, is also an option. I could have taken CTA from my office at Madison/Wells to CNI’s office in the high-rise with less than 3/5th of a mile walking. Google Maps predicts that this trip would have taken 1:06 (one hour and six minutes). It would have cost $2.75 ($2.50+25 cents transfer)

Metra, on the other hand, excluding the marginal cost of my Divvy ride because I have a $99 annual membership that nets me unlimited free rides of up to 45 minutes, took 56 minutes (5 on bike, 36 on train, 15 on foot) and cost $5.25.

A 14 percent shorter trip via Metra cost me 90 percent more. If I wanted to have saved the 15 minute walking trip and taken a CTA bus, that would have been an extra $2.25. CTA and Metra do not have integrated fares ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and the Cook County Government is trying to do something about the price differential, and reduce the prices on the faster (and more comfortable) Metra rides. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is blocking it. Go figure.

My travel in 2019: North America and a quick hop over to Oceania

I visited new-to-me cities in the United States, went to Mexico for the first time ever, and returned to Canada for the first time in over 10 years. I also rode a lot of new transit – including bike share – systems, which are denoted.

Oh, and I [brag] flew in United Polaris business class* [/brag] to New Zealand with my mom, after which we also visited Australia. Sadly, it’s now been over 2.5 years since I’ve traveled in Europe. 

The ferry to Manly is bidirectional

Two ferries in front of Sydney Opera House at Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia.

Aside: Transit advocates already know this: Every city I visited outside the United States had bus lanes. And not just a few here and there, but everywhere. On every route, in every city and suburb.

Here’s where I went in 2019 (in chronological order) (links go to photo albums on my Flickr):

  • Miami, Miami Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
    • I rode Brightline (now Virgin Trains); to Ft. Lauderdale in economy and from Ft. Lauderdale in first class. That meant use of the lounge, unlimited snacks and alcoholic beverages.
    • Metrorail (elevated/subway)
    • Metrobus – The bus is the best way to get your cute butt over to sunning on South Beach. Miami-Dade Transit also uses an app to sell QR-code based tickets that you show to a bus driver and scan to board Metrorail.
    • Metromover (the free people mover in downtown Miami)
    • I also rode a scooter for the first time, and I rode a bike for a few hours.
  • Toronto, Canada
    • I first visited Toronto over a decade ago with my family.
    • I rode the subway, the UP Express (airport train), bike share, and the trams and buses.
  • Mexico City, Mexico
    • Métro, the ultra cheap and frequent subway, of course! I rode it out of the airport to a station 100 meters from my hotel.
    • Métrobus – my first BRT, and it was stupendous.
    • Bike share – A tourist from the U.K. asked me what the conditions were like cycling around the city. I said that depends on your comfort riding a bike in a busy big city, which is something I’m used to. After you observe and adapt to the different driving conditions and customs, it’s really no different than biking in Chicago or New York City.
    • Jitney bus. I forget what it’s called locally. This particular bus driver was plying a main street in a CDMX-branded purple bus that he apparently owned, looking for fares and once the bus was full (no more standing room), he pushed down on the accelerator to the nearest subway station.
  • Sacramento and Napa, California
    • I didn’t take any transit here, not even the light rail. I didn’t have any time.
    • I pedaled a Jump electric dockless bike for the first time.
  • Oakland and Berkeley (2nd time I’ve been)
    • I took Flixbus for the first time, from Sacramento to West Oakland. This is a German-based company that’s a network operator rather than a vehicle operator. Local companies contract with Flixbus to use Flixbus’s branding and ticketing systems.
    • Bay Wheels bike share (it used to be called Ford GoBike)
  • Charleston, South Carolina (no transit here, but I rented a bike for two days)

Oceania (16 nights)

  • Auckland, New Zealand
    • Tip: You’re probably going hiking in New Zealand, and bringing hiking boots. Clean them very well before you go to prevent being delayed at your arrival airport because you’ve triggered a biosecurity check of your shoes.
    • Lots of buses, which came quite frequently.
    • Regional rail from Britomart to Mt. Eden (yeah, a very short ride)
    • An annoying thing about transit in Auckland is that the transit card “deposit” is pricey and non-refundable. Additionally, the stored value (e-purse) on the card can pay for a second rider, but at the full cash rate, not the card rate.
  • Tongariro National Park
    • There’s a thrice-weekly train between Auckland and Wellington that stops here, but I didn’t schedule my trip well to be able to ride it.
    • I took a shuttle bus from my wonderful hotel (The Park Hotel Ruepehu) to the Mangatepopo Carpark, which is the start of the amazing Tongariro Alpine Crossing, and then from the end of the hike at Ketetahi Carpark back to the hotel. It was $20 NZD and it meant that my mom wouldn’t have to drive 60 miles for the same trip.
  • Wellington, New Zealand
    • The only transit we took here was the historic cable car – a cable-pulled funicular – from the high street to Kelburn (which is a suburb, but the way cities and suburbs as governmental jurisdictions and distinct geographies work in New Zealand and Australia is different than the U.S.).
    • At the top of the hill in Kelburn is a free cable car museum with a gorgeous restored vintage cable car, and an entrance to the botanic gardens.
    • We were going to take SkyBus to the airport, but due to a Christmas festival in the CBD, I wasn’t sure where it was going to pick up and we were running late.
  • Sydney, Australia
    • I observed the high quality transit of Sydney (really, Transport NSW, because it’s all operated by the state of New South Wales) when departing the airport via the Airport Link. The T8 line is operated by Transport NSW’s subsidiary Sydney Trains, but the airport and other stations along the line are owned by a private organization that charges a station access fee (which is about $10 USD). Anyway, the first train we boarded was brand new, delivered this year! The train is called “B set” and has everything Metra doesn’t: Level boarding, passenger information displays, two wide doors per carriage, two full levels, and plenty of seating and standing space at the boarding level for people who need step-free access (this includes people with disabilities, people with strollers, luggage, bikes, etc.).
    • In addition to Sydney Trains, we rode NSW TrainLink to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.
    • We rode the tram line (which they call L1, for light rail) from Chinatown to the Jubilee Park stop to visit Tramsheds, a redevelopment of a, get this, tram shed.
    • To get to Bondi Beach we rode Sydney Trains to Bondi Junction, a station that hooks into a shopping center and pedestrian shopping street. It’s odd…where we boarded bus route #333 for the final hop to the beach, and where we entered on the return from the shopping street, you can’t really see the station. It appears surrounded by offices and shopping. (I didn’t know this until later, but #333 runs from Circular Quay in the CBD to Bondi Beach and further on.)
    • I can’t forget the ferries…A public transport ferry, owned and operated by Transport NSW, carries up to 1,000 people from Circular Quay non-stop to Manly, a suburb at the eastern head of the Sydney Harbour. One of the boats on this route is featured in the photo above. At Manly we took a bus to the North Head reserve to get a look at the Pacific Ocean, the cliffs, Sydney Harbour National Park, and the city skyline.
Train going west from Flinders Railway Station
A Metro train departs Flinders Railway Station in Melbourne.
  • Melbourne, Australia
    • SkyBus to and from the airport. This company runs frequent coaches for about $13 USD every 20 minutes from Tullamarine (MEL) airport to Southern Cross station. Here I bought two transit cards so we could ride a “Metro” (regional rail) train to Flinders Street station and then a tram to our hotel in St. Kilda (which is a suburb of Melbourne, but you could walk from our hotel to the Melbourne CBD in 20 minutes).
    • Melbourne, Victoria, has the world’s largest tram network, and a lot of it is free, so what do you think I did?
    • I rented a bike and rode around for four hours, as well.
    • We also rode the Belgrave Metro line to Belgrave station in order to ride Puffing Billy, a steam engine (which I don’t recommend unless you really like steam engines).
    • To get over to “Welcome to Thornbury”, a food truck and beer garden in the Melbourne “suburb” of Northcote we rode the Mernda Metro line from Central Station and then walked a couple blocks from Croxton Station. To return, we rode the 86 tram (my mom said she prefers the trams to trains because she can see more of the city).

My relaxing flight to Oceania

I have wanted to fly long haul international in business class for quite some time. I thought about saving miles for it. I roughly calculated how long it would take to acquire enough miles: about 3-4 years. And in the meantime, I can’t use the miles for what I think are more valuable trips, like deciding a week before to visit my mom ($600, or 30,000 miles, a “value” of 2 cents per mile).

Anyway, I decided I would pay for business class at some point, when it made sense. I used Google’s ITA Matrix website to find the cheapest days on which to fly one-way in one fare class, and the return in a different fare class. I figured out how to use Google Flights to find those itineraries, which conveniently links to United’s website for final purchase. I couldn’t do it. The prices were too high. And I didn’t want to fly first class from Chicago to San Francisco. (Air New Zealand flies nonstop from Chicago to Auckland, but I wanted to meet my mom in San Francisco so we could be on the same flight to Auckland.)

Fast forward to San Francisco International Airport, and my mom and I walk up to the gate. My mom asked if they hadn’t any better seats in economy available. Keep in mind that boarding starts in 10 minutes, so the answer was no. The gate agent mentioned that there are still seats in business class. I was curious, so I asked how much they were. She quoted me the upgrade fee, clarifying “and that’s per seat”.

I spent two seconds calculating the upgrade fee and comparing it to the hours of research I had done at home finding the right itinerary that would put me in business class for the cheapest outlay. “I’ll do it”, I replied, to which she asked, “For how many?”, double checking if it was for me, or me and my mom. “Two”, I said.

Not only do I still believe that I got a great deal on United’s Polaris business class, I also satisfied a longtime curiosity, enjoyed the flight, and woke up feeling ready to have a full day exploring Auckland.

Before leaving home I felt anxious that we would arrive in Auckland after having spent 14 hours in a cramped seat and potentially waste the first day feeling exhausted. Being able to sleep on a lie-flat seat meant that we felt pretty good when we arrived in Auckland at 8 AM. We got to the hotel by 10 AM – taking SkyBus to the city center – to drop off luggage, because the room wouldn’t be available until 2 PM.

We were still tired, though – when the hotel finally gave us access to a room, we inadvertently took a three hour nap.

Chicago’s massive parking footprint – as measured on December 25, 2019

No, I didn’t spend my day outside measuring parking lots. I spent it inside measuring existing, available data from OpenStreetMap. The last time I measured the amount of parking area in Chicagoland was on September 16, 2018, using the same data source.

Using the footprints of parking lots and garages drawn into OpenStreetMap as a data source, the area of land in a portion of Chicagoland occupied by parking lots and garages is 254,429,609 square feet. This portion represents the “envelope” of the Chicago city limits.

This map shows the tan-colored “clipping boundary” envelope in which the parking lots were measured. The Chicago city limits are shown in pink.

Last year it was 247,539,968 square feet, so the measured area of this portion of Chicagoland’s parking lots and garages increased by a hair over 2.7 percent. This isn’t necessarily new parking areas, but it’s parking areas that have been documented and mapped.

254,429,609 square feet converts to:

  • 5,841 acres
  • 9.13 mi^2 (square miles)
  • 23.64 km^2 (square kilometers)
  • 4.0% area of Chicago is parking (Chicago is ~589.56 km^2 )

Looking at just the City of Chicago limits, though, the land area of Chicago occupied by already-mapped parking lots and garages is 163,995,621 square feet, or about 2.6 percent of Chicago’s area.

That converts to:

  • 3,764 acres
  • 5.88 mi^2 (square miles)
  • 15.24 km^2 (square kilometers)
  • 2.6% area of Chicago is parking (Chicago is ~589.56 km^2 )

Want to make your own analysis? Here’s the study area I used, formatted as GeoJSON:

{"type": "Polygon", "coordinates": [[[-87.94, 41.639999999999986], [-87.94, 42.02000000000001], [-87.52, 42.02000000000001], [-87.52, 41.639999999999986], [-87.94, 41.639999999999986]]]}

Cities that have transit fare deals (capping) have fairer fares

“Fare capping” is a jargon term for a fare policy that any transit agency can implement to save their riders money, make fares fairer, and potentially increase ridership. Another term is “deal”, as these policies net riders a break in the fares.

Fare capping ensures that riders who pay for rides with a transit card* will never pay more than the cost of one or more daily and multi-day passes that the transit agency includes in its fare capping policy.

Example 1: Consider a tourist or infrequent visitor to the city. The tourist will use transit to get around and when they arrive at a ticket vending machine, they’re given the option to get a smart card and load with “e-purse” (cash to pay as they ride) or get a smart card and load it with a pass for one or more days. In Chicago, there are 1-day, 3-day, 7-day, and 30-day options, for $10, $20, $28, and $105.

Just like anyone else, the tourist doesn’t want to pay more than they have to so they try to estimate the number of trips they’ll take today to see if the number of rides will cost more than $10 (the price of a 1-day pass). That sounds like a complicated thought exercise and one with a high likelihood of being wrong at the end of the day!

In a fare capping system, the tourist won’t have to choose! They obtain the transit smart card, load it with $5 cash, and perhaps connect it to an app or connect it to an auto-load functionality. The tourist rides buses and the ‘L’ and as soon as they ride $10 worth in the service day, their transit smart card automatically starts granting them free rides – their transit card has just been granted a 1-day pass!

By eliminating the need to choose between fare products, the tourist is more comfortable riding transit as much as they need to today because they know that they’ll never be charged more than $10.

Example 2: Consider someone who doesn’t earn very much and uses transit to get to work two times a day, five days a week, 20 days a month. At $2.50 per ride, that works out to $100, which is less than the cost of a 30-day pass in Chicago (which is $105, and an oddity, but I won’t address that). This person also sometimes takes additional rides after work and on the weekend to run errands, so their monthly rides will end up costing more than $105, the price of a 30-day pass.

It would make the most financial sense for this worker to get a 30-day pass. But when you don’t earn much, it’s hard to come up with or part with $105 at one time.

In a fare capping system, the person doesn’t have to worry about putting up $105 at this very moment. They would be able to ride transit as much as they want to in a 30-day period knowing that they will pay $2.50 per ride each day, but never more than $105 in a 30-day period. They don’t need to have $105 right now to be able to save money in the long run.

A Miami-Dade Transit Agency poster indicate fare capping (without calling it fare capping, because that’s a wonky phrase).

Cities with fare capping

11 cities, last updated September 12, 2019

  1. London is first in the list because they were first with fare capping – It was pretty cool back in 2014 when my Anglophile friend told me to borrow his Oyster card and just tap away and ride transit all day, because I would never pay more than the cost of a 1-day pass.
    • London also has weekly capping, but this doesn’t include the Underground or Overground (buses and trams only). The week also starts on Monday and ends on Sunday.
  2. Miami is the most recent place to have fare capping, which @erik_griswold spotted on a poster. Daily capping only.
  3. St. Louis now has a transit smart card, and has daily capping.
  4. Sydney’s Opal card offers daily capping, weekly capping, and Sunday deal.
    • On Sundays, people can ride on metro, train, bus, ferry and light rail services all day Sunday for the price of one ride, $2.80 AUD (about $1.89 as of August 22, 2019).
    • Another deal the Opal card offers users: Ride 8 times in a week, and all subsequent rides are 50% off.
  5. Indianapolis’s IndyGo transit agency has daily capping, and weekly capping.
  6. San Jose-based transit agency Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has daily capping which they call “Day Pass Accumulator”.
  7. Oakland-East Bay’s AC Transit has daily capping, but they don’t use those words. The website says that a day pass is applied to the Clipper transit smart card when a third trip is taken in a day.
  8. Portland, Oregon: TriMet, C-TRAN, and Portland Streetcar seem to have the most flexible payment options for their fare capping policy: Riders with a Hop transit smart card get daily capping and monthly capping. People who pay with Google Pay and Apple Pay can also get daily and weekly capping; people who pay with Samsung Pay or a contactless credit card can get daily capping.
  9. Victoria (Australian state) has daily capping on metropolitan Melbourne routes and regional routes when using the myki card.
  10. Houston, Texas: METRO has daily capping that kicks in after “Q” fare card holder takes three trips.
  11. The Ride in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has daily, weekly, and monthly capping – this is the policy to beat.
St. Louis’s MyGatewayCard has daily capping.

* Notes

A transit card is only necessary for transit systems that store the values and passes on a card. The Chicago Transit Authority and its vendor, Cubic, created Ventra, an account-based system that stores values and passes on an account in the cloud, and is expressed through the Ventra card, compatible smartphones, and compatible smartwatches. Fares to pay for rides Metra, a commuter rail company that participates in Ventra, can be purchased using the Ventra account’s stored value. Metra doesn’t accept taps from a Ventra card.

My idea for the Chicago prize: Build 1,000 ADUs collectively

I probably won’t actually submit my idea to the Chicago Prize, a $10 million grant competition to revitalize neighborhoods, so I’m posting it here for everyone to read.

Basically, I want to use the $10 million as seed money to start a small organization that does design, construction administration, and property management to help homeowners build 1,000 accessory dwelling units in the form of new construction detached rear houses, attached rear houses, and renovated basement and attic units. $10 million won’t build that many, so there will be a small finance team to assemble additional grants as well as collect money through a crowdfunding initiative so anyone with $50 or more (up to $1,000) can invest in the program.

Read my full idea to crowdfund 1,000 ADUs (it’s about 5 pages long).

The Plús Hús, a backyard cottage, designed and made in Los Angeles.

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