Oh, how Chicago land use is controlled by spot zoning

If you only had a zoning map to try and understand how the different blocks in the City of Chicago relate to their neighborhoods and the city at large, you might have the idea that the city has no neighborhoods, but is actually a collection of tiny, randomly dispersed zones of differing land uses.

And then when you walked those areas you’d find that the zones, which attempt to prescribe a land use, at least nominally, don’t have anything to do with the restaurant, housing, and commercial building mix of uses actually present.

No plan would have been devised to create a map like this.

Over the last five years, and surely over the last 14, the City of Chicago has been divided (really, split) into an increasing number of distinct zoning districts.

The city’s zoning map is updated after each monthly city council meeting, to reflect the numerous changes that the 50 alders have approved individually. (Their collective approval occurs unanimously in an omnibus bill.)

Every few months I ask the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) for the latest zoning map, in the form of a shapefile (a kind of file that holds geographic information that can be analyzed by many computer programs). While Chicago has one of the country’s best open data offerings, some datasets, like zoning, don’t get updated in the catalog.

There are two ways I can analyze and present the data about the quantity of zoning districts. Both, however, show that the number of distinct zoning districts has increased. This means that the city is divided even more finely than it was just six months ago.

Analysis 1: Period snapshots

I have the zoning shapefile for five periods, snapshots of the city’s zoning map at that time. From August 2012 to now, May 2016, the number of discrete zoning districts (the sum of all B3-5, RS-1, DX-7, etc. zoning classes) has increased 7.8 percent.

Period Zoning districts change

August 2012

11,278

September 2014

11,677

3.42%

June 2015

11,918

2.02%

November 2015

12,015

0.81%

May 2016

12,162

1.21%

I collect the period snapshots to show the history of zoning at a specific address or building in Chicago, which is listed on Chicago Cityscape. For example, the zoning for the site of the new mixed-use development in Bucktown that includes a reconstructed Aldi has changed four times in four years.

aldi zoning history

Analysis 2: Creation date

The zoning shapefiles also have the date at which a zoning district was split or combined to create a new district, either with a different zoning class (RT-4, C1-1, etc.) or a different shape.

With the most recent zoning shapefile I can tell how many new zoning districts were split or combined and a record representing it was added to the list. The records start in 2002, and by the end of the year 7,717 records were created.

The following year, only 14 records were added, and in 2004, only 6. The Chicago City Council adopted a rewritten zoning code in 2004, and I guess that the zoning map was modified prior to adoption. After 2004, the number of new zoning districts picks up:

year zoning districts added by splitting/combining cumulative change

2002

7717

7717

2003

14

7731

0.18%

2004

6

7737

0.08%

2005

267

8004

3.45%

2006

497

8501

6.21%

2007

561

9062

6.60%

2008

592

9654

6.53%

2009

304

9958

3.15%

2010

245

10203

2.46%

2011

271

10474

2.66%

2012

277

10751

2.64%

2013

299

11050

2.78%

2014

397

11447

3.59%

2015

367

11814

3.21%

2016

173

11987

1.46%

none listed

175

12,162

It seems there’s a light relationship between the recession that started in 2008 and the number of zoning changes made. There are more made annually before the recession than after it. It actually seems to track with building permits (sorry, no chart handy).

Riding on a ring of Rotterdam

Map of bike ride around some Rotterdam harbors

This map shows my bike ride starting from “My flat” and going west, then south, then east, and north.

Read more frequent sabbatical updates on my Tumblr.

Two Thursdays ago I took a two hour bike ride around the western part of Rotterdam and some of its harbors. I used “GPS Recorder” for the iPhone to track my trip, and it registered that I biked a little under 38 kilometers (24 miles). The trip is notable because it uses both the Beneluxtunnel and the Maastunnel (the river is called “Maas”, pronounced like the Spanish word “mas”), and the route one takes differs depending on where they begin and end.

My bike parked on the canal in front of my flat

Sometimes I park my bike on the canal in front of my flat, and other times there’s bike parking on the sidewalk. Look at the boat; in the back you see a car. Most shippers take a car with them so they can drive around the city at their destination. Some ships have the car already in a kind of tray that can be lifted by a crane dedicated for this purpose where they dock.

I started at my flat in the Nieuwe Westen neighborhood, across the canal from Spangen, about 10 minutes west of the Rotterdam Centraal train station. From there I headed slightly north to cross the canal on a bridge that carries a main road past the Sparta football stadium. Then it heads into the suburb of Schiedam and through a very pretty nature preserve.

Most bridges are moveable. This one is a bascule bridge and those red and white poles are the gates that close the road and the bike path.

Most bridges are moveable. This one is a bascule bridge and those red and white poles are the gates that close the road and the bike path.

Beyond the nature preserve the route winds past some “havens” (harbors) and reaches the north side of the Benelux tunnel. An escalator takes you and your bike down about three levels to a tunnel that’s separated from the northbound highway by a full-height wall. There’s an elevator, also, which “bromfietsen” (scooter) riders must use.

Riding south towards the northern Beneluxtunnel entrance

The north bike/pedestrian entrance to the Beneluxtunnel.

On the south side of the harbor you pass through a village, Pernis, in the city of Schiedam. To give you a sense of how connected small towns in the Netherlands are by transit, it has its own metro rapid transit station. This is the only part of the route where there’s not a dedicated bike path.

Abandoned house in Schiedam

An abandoned house in Pernis, taken from the bike path atop a “dijk” (dike). Behind the line of trees is the Metro line C and the A4 motorway, which is heading to and from the same tunnel I came out of.

After the village, the bike path goes south and up on an overpass to cross over a railroad and then takes you down to the east. The path parallels freight railroad tracks and a highway. Huge machines upon which the AT-AT walker in Star Wars was modeled are dormant in one of the many intermodal yards on the harbor.

The bike path has to cross the highway to the south side of it, and there’s a signalized intersection to make this maneuver. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a timed intersection in the Netherlands. Every one I’ve passed through and paid attention to has a sensor of some kind. In many cases this reduces the amount of time any one person has to wait (okay, that sounds impossible, but it’s also dependent on the time of day, the traffic volumes of each mode, and which road or bike path is supposed to have priority). As I pedal toward the intersection it turns green before I get there, so I don’t have to stop.

I have to make another crossing over railroad tracks and get to the other side of a different highway. There’s another overpass this time. I stopped on my way down because some workers were carrying containers on what looked like Transformers-sized forklifts.

Bike around the Rotterdam harbor from Steven Vance on Vimeo.

After the overpass is a path under the highway, and from here and to the east most of the harbor is far away. There are office buildings on the north side of this path, and a railroad yard on the south side. Between the office buildings are tracks so trains in the yard can reach the harbor. All of the tracks cross the bike path at an angle. Signs say “let op” (caution) and because a fence and hedges separating the bike path from the yard, it seems like a train could pop out onto the bike path at any moment.

Ten minutes later and I’ve reached a neighborhood. On the harbor side is what looks like housing for workers, and the other side is residential. I can see the Maastunnel’s ventilation shaft. One more corner turned and I can see the little house where “fietsers” (cyclists) and “voetgangers” (pedestrians; “voet” is pronounced like foot) take the escalator down.

There are separate levels for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s unclear where the road tunnel is, whereas the low rumbling noise I heard in the Beneluxtunnel gave away its position. The tunnel slopes downward toward the middle, so you can gain a little momentum but it seemed harder in the Maastunnel than in the Benelux tunnel because of what felt like a headwind (maybe the ventilation system is strong).

Maastunnel

Descending into the Maastunnel so I can ride north to home.

The Maastunnel was built from 1937 to 1942, and its 74-year-old age shows: the escalators have fascinating wooden steps. The walls along the escalators are adorned with photographs showing people using the tunnel, and other scenes of building the tunnel. The Beneluxtunnel was built in two phases, with the first group of two tunnels opening in 1967, and the second group of six tunnels, including the bike and pedestrian tunnel, in 2002.

Now that I’ve been riding around Rotterdam for four weeks I can always get home without consulting a map and it’s an easy ride home from the north side of the Maastunnel to home, and I can take several different routes that are all about the same distance and time.

I’m here in Rotterdam

Untitled

I arrived in Rotterdam last Saturday, 9 April. A friend of a friend, PK, picked me up at Rotterdam Centraal, the main station, the design of which I find fucking fantastic. By “picked me up”, he really did. He used his fancy “OV-chipkaart” multi-use transit card with associated “OV-fiets” bike-share membership to check out two bikes for me and him. I carried two pieces of my luggage, and he carried a third, and we biked back to my friend DS’s apartment. (PK had been living there temporarily while he looked for an apartment somewhere in the country.)

I’m posting frequent updates to my Tumblr. And my photos get automatically uploaded to Flickr. I also post photos to Instagram, and to Twitter.

All the luggage I brought for three months in Europe

PK let me into the apartment and then we went to the Albert Heijn grocery store. PK soon departed to catch a train to another city for a birthday party. I took a three hour nap. I didn’t do anything else on Saturday. DS would return from his holiday on Monday evening.

  • On Sunday I biked around the city.
  • On Monday I met with Meredith, an expat living in Amsterdam. I also slept a bunch off and on. DS came home and we went out to dinner. We also went back to the grocery store and tried to figure out why neither my debit nor credit card would work. Albert Heijn, since I was there in September 2015, has changed their machines and policy and won’t accept my bank cards!
  • On Tuesday I met with my friend Stefan. I found “Bataviakade” in Delfshaven. And slept at odd hours. I fell asleep on the couch at 20:00 and went to bed at around 00:00.
  • On Wednesday I slept until 13:00. I then followed up on some emails, fixed some stuff on Chicago Cityscape, and vacuumed the carpets. Then DS and I went out for beers and burgers. On our way home I bought a six-pack of (small cans) Heineken beer for €7 at a “night shop” called, well, “Night Shop.”
Bataviakade street name in Delfshaven, Rotterdam

“Bataviakade” means “Batavia quay”. I grew up in a city called Batavia, Illinois. The city was named after Batavia, New York. Batavia is the Latin word for the “Betuwe” part of the Netherlands.

It’s now Thursday and I’m going to try and open a bank account here. This means I’ll get a debit card which will open so many doors; many places don’t accept international bank cards. It also means I can pay rent and for a bicycle without lower or no fees. After I get a bank account I can get a discount travel card to use on NS, the national intercity train operator.

For €99 per month I can take unlimited trips on the intercity trains during off-peak hours and on weekends. I’ll be able to visit a lot more cities with this card, and I already have plans to use the train tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday (that’s three round trips). The train fares add up! At least this weekend I’ll be traveling with DS; he has a travel card and companions can buy travel together with a 40% discount.

I didn’t get to publish this before I left the house. I went to the bank and the kind worker said it wasn’t possible to open a bank account for someone who’s staying here for such a short time. She said there’s a monthly maintenance fee, and I said I would be okay paying that while I’m not in the Netherlands between visits.

Anyway, my friend is going to help me get the discount travel card, which, to me, is the most important product I need.

I also need to file my American tax return today.

The U.S. DOT should collaborate with existing “National Transit Maps” makers

The U.S. DOT demonstrated one idea for how a National Transit Map might look and work at a conference in February.

The Washington Post reported this month that the United States Department of Transportation is going to develop a “National Transit Map” because, frankly, one doesn’t exist. The U.S. DOT said such a map could reveal “transit deserts” (the screen capture above shows one example from Salt Lake City, discussed below).

Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in an open letter to say that the department and the nation’s transit agencies “have yet to recognize the full potential” of a data standard called the General Transit Feed Specification that Google promoted in order to integrate transit routing on its maps. Foxx described two problems that arose out of not using “GTFS”.

  1. Transit vehicles have significantly greater capacity than passenger cars, but are often considered just vehicles because we are unable to show where and when the transit vehicles are scheduled to operate. The realistic treatment of transit for planning, performance measures, and resiliency requires real data on transit system operations.
  2. One of the most important social values of transit is that it makes transportation available to people who do not have access to private automobiles, and provides transportation options for those who do. Yet, we cannot describe this value at a national level and in many regions because we do not have a national map of fixed transit routes.

“The solution is straightforward”, Foxx continued, “[is] a national repository of voluntarily provided, public domain GTFS feed data that is compiled into a common format with data from fixed route systems.”

The letter went on to explain exactly how the DOT would compile the GTFS files, and said the first “collection day” will be March 31, this week. As of this writing, the website to which transit agencies must submit their GTFS files is unavailable.

What Foxx is asking for has already been done to some degree. Two national transit maps and one data warehouse already exist and the DOT should engage those producers, and others who would use the map, to determine the best way to build a useful but inexpensive map and database. Each of the two existing maps and databases was created by volunteers and are already-funded projects so it would make sense to maximize the use of existing projects and data.

“Transitland” is a project to host transit maps and timetables for transit systems around the world. It was created by Mapzen, a company funded by Samsung to build open source mapping and geodata tools. Transitland is also built upon GTFS data from agencies all over the world. Its data APIs and public map can help answer the question: How many transit operators serve Bay Area residents, and what areas does each service?

For the United States, Transitland hosts and queries data from transit agencies in 31 states and the District of Columbia. In Washington, D.C., Transitland is aware of four transit agencies. It’s a great tool in that respect: Not all of the four transit agencies are headquartered in D.C. or primarily serve that city. The app is capable of understanding spatial overlaps between municipal and regional geographies and transit agencies.

Transitland has a “GUI” to show you how much transit data it has around the world.

“Transit Explorer” is an interactive map of all rail transit and bus rapid transit lines in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Yonah Freemark, author of The Transport Politic, created the map using data culled from OpenStreetMap, the National Transit Atlas Database (administered by the DOT and which shows fixed-guideway transit), and his own research. I wrote the custom JavaScript code for the Leaflet-powered map.

No other agency or project has collected this much data about fixed-guideway transit lines in any of the three countries, since the map includes detailed information about line lengths, ridership, and other characteristics that are not included in GTFS data. Transit Explorer, though, does not include local bus service or service frequencies, which the DOT’s map may if it incorporates the full breadth of GTFS data.

Transit Explorer also goes a step further by providing data about under construction and proposed fixed-guideway transit lines, which is information that is very relevant to understanding future neighborhood accessibility to transit, but which is not available through GTFS sources.

Finally, “GTFS Data Exchange” is a website that has been storing snapshots of GTFS feeds from agencies around the world for almost a decade, or about as long as GTFS has been used in Google Maps. The snapshots allow for service comparisons of a single agency across time. For example, there are over 100 versions of the GTFS data for the Chicago Transit Authority, stretching back to November 2009; new versions are added – by “cta-archiver” – twice a month.

Josh Cohen, writing in Next City, highlighted the significance of Google’s invention of GTFS, saying, “Prior to the adoption of GTFS, creating such a map would’ve been unwieldy and likely produced an out-of-date product by the time it was completed.” The DOT’s own National Transit Atlas Database includes only fixed-guideway (a.k.a. trains) routes, and hasn’t been updated since 2004.

Not all GTFS feeds are created equal, though. Some transit agencies don’t include all of the data, some of which is optional for Google Map’s purpose, that would make the National Transit Map useful for the spatial analysis the DOT intends. Many agencies don’t include the “route shapes”, or the geographic lines between train stations and bus stops. Researchers are able to see where the vehicles stop, but not which streets or routes they take. Foxx’s letter doesn’t acknowledge this. It does, however, mention that transit agencies can use some federal funds to create the GTFS data.

David Levinson, professor at the University of Minnesota, believes the map will bias coverage (geographic reach of transit service) over frequency (how many buses are run each day that someone could ride).

The U.S. DOT’s chief data officer, Dan Morgan, whom I met at Transportation Camp 2015 in Washington, D.C., presented at the FedGIS Conference this year one idea to demonstrate coverage and frequency in Salt Lake City, using the GTFS data from the Utah Transit Authority.

Levinson also tweeted that it will be difficult for a national map to show service because of the struggles individual transit providers have symbolizing their own service patterns.

Foxx’s letter doesn’t describe how planners will be able to download the data in the collection, but whichever app they build or modify will cost money. Before going much further, and before spending any significant funds, Foxx should consult potential users and researchers to avoid duplicating existing projects that may ultimately be superior resources.

Foxx can also take advantage of “18F” a new agency within the General Services Administration to overcome government’s reputation for creating costly and difficult to use apps. The GSA procures all kinds of things the federal government needs, and 18F may be able to help the DOT create the National Transit Map (and database) in a modern, tech and user-friendly way – or write a good RFP for someone else to make it.

Look for the National Transit Map this summer.

What should this area in Chicago be called?

The area is generally bounded by Harrison Street or Congress Parkway, Dan Ryan Expressway or Desplaines Street, Roosevelt Road, and the Chicago River.

The area is generally bounded by Harrison Street or Congress Parkway, Dan Ryan Expressway or Desplaines Street, Roosevelt Road, and the Chicago River.

Currently it’s called the South Loop, which is a neighborhood name. It’s in the “Near West Side” community area. See how the City of Chicago mapped the “South Loop” in the past when it used to keep track of neighborhood boundaries.

I think it should have a new name. It should not be called the South Loop because the commonly identified center of the South Loop is probably somewhere between Roosevelt and Harrison, and Michigan Avenue and State Street, very far from this area. It just might be the Roosevelt CTA station, which has over 12,000 boardings a day.

Saying that you’re going to some business that’s west of the river and saying that the business is in the South Loop would confuse a lot of people as to what its nearby.

It’s more of an industrial and commercial area that gained a lot of new big box (faceless) retail in the 2000s, so very few people live there. There are several stores that exist that came decades before the big box outlets; for fabric, clothing, shoes, and suits. It’s probably these independent store owners that can point to an older neighborhood name as they were the center of consumer commerce in this area.

It’s easy to give it a new name. Most of the housing is north of Harrison Street. It’s difficult to figure out how many people live here because the block groups for this area include more than the area in question.

It’s easy to argue that because of the land uses, it really has no current identifiable “place” or pattern that attracts people. I’d like to know more about its history and, South Loop being a modern name, its previous names.

The rate of change on city streets: USA versus the Netherlands

ThinkBike 2013

One of the people in this photo is Dutch. We’re on the Dearborn bike route installed downtown in 2012. The next downtown protected bike route was installed in 2015 serving a different area. However, the Dearborn bike route has become so popular that it’s size and design (t’s a narrow, two-way lane) are insufficient for the demand (who knew that bicycling in a city center would be so high in demand, especially on a protected course?) and there are no plans to build a complementary facility to improve the conditions.

My friend Mark wrote the following paragraph on his blog, BICYCLE DUTCH, relating the need to change a city and its streets to the way families change the contents of essential parts of their homes. In other words, cities and streets are like our living rooms and they must also change as we change.

Think about your living room, chances are you change it completely every 15 to 20 years. Because you need a wider sofa for the expanding family, or because you rightfully think that table has had its best years. Maybe the extra big seat for granddad is sadly not needed anymore. Of course, things can’t always be perfect: you have a budget to consider and it is not so easy to change the walls. Replacing things does give you the opportunity to correct earlier mistakes and to get the things which are more useful now. While you are at it, you can also match the colours and materials better again. Our cities are not so different from our living rooms. Just as families grow and later decrease in size again when the children leave the house, the modal share of the different types of traffic users changes over the years. These shifting modal shares warrant changes to the street design. So you may need some extra space where it was not necessary before, but if you see less and less of a certain type of traffic, its space can be reallocated to other road users.

What I really want to talk about is the rate of change in the Netherlands. I’ve visited Mark’s home in s’Hertogenbosh (Den Bosch), and we’ve walked around Utrecht.

One thing he told me, which is widely evident, is that the Netherlands is always renewing its streets. Or it has been for decades (maybe since World War II). They update street design standards regularly and streets that no longer meet these designs (or a few generations back) are updated to meet them.

Now, the two changes – updating the standards and updating the streets – don’t happen so gloriously hand in hand. Just like in the United States it takes a couple of years to come up with the right design.

The difference between our two countries is the regularity in updating the designs, and the regularity in updating streets.

I’ll lead with one example in Chicago and ask that you tell me about projects in your city that repair what’s long been a pain in the ass.

An intersection in the Wicker Park neighborhood got modern traffic signals, added crosswalk signals (there had never been any), and a stupid, sometimes dangerous little island removed. One of the four legs didn’t have a marked crosswalk. The state of Illinois chipped in most of the cost of the update – this was known at least four years before the construction actually happened.

When I wrote a blog post about the project for Grid Chicago in 2012, I found a photo from 1959 that showed the intersection in the same configuration. I also wrote in that post that the construction was delayed from 2012 to 2013. Well, it got built in 2014.

Milwaukee & Wood ca. 1959

Intersections like this – with difficult-to-see traffic signals that motorist routinely blow past, missing crosswalks, and curb ramps that aren’t accessible – persist across Chicago in the state they’ve been in for 55 or more years.

The “reconstructed bicycle route” that Mark discusses and illustrates in his blog post is known to have been updated at least once a decade. He wrote, “pictures from 1980, 1998 and 2015 show how one such T-junction was changed several times. The protected intersection went through some stages, but having learned by trial and error, the design we see now is one that fits the present ‘family’ best.”

Three books by well-known city transportation planners have all been published within months of each other. I read and reviewed Sam Schwartz’s “Street Smart”, and I’m reading Janette Sadik-Khan’s “Street Fight“. Gabe Klein’s “Startup City” is the third. All of them advocate for new designs to match the changing attitudes and needs cities have. Actually, the needs of the cities haven’t really changed, but our attitudes and policies – and the politics – around how to update cities has evolved.

I don’t know what can spur all of these seemingly minor (they’re no Belmont Flyover) infrastructural updates. I don’t think a lack of money is to blame. I think a lack of coordination, staffing, and planning ensures that outdated and unsafe designs remain on city streets.

P.S. The Netherlands “renewal” attitude isn’t limited to streets. The Dutch national railway infrastructure company “ProRail” (which is “private” but owned by the government) has been completely replacing all of the primary train stations. The Dutch have been rebuilding dikes and building flood control projects for decades, many under the common name “Delta Works”.

Here’s a photo in Nijmegen where the government was building a new, bypass canal that would ease a shipping route, create a controlled flood area, a new recreation area, but that would also displace homes.

Easily find TIF districts in your ward but good data on their current obligations is missing

Ald. Ameya Pawar speaks to the Board of Education (WBEZ/Bill Healy)

Alder Ameya Pawar is willing to give back TIF money from projects in the 47th Ward to the Chicago Public Schools. Photo: Bill Healy for WBEZ

Alders Ameya Pawar (47th), Pat O’Connor (40th), Joe Moreno (1st) and Pat Dowell (3rd) are introducing a resolution at today’s budget committee to ask all alders to choose and stop certain TIF-funded projects in their wards (instructions on how to find TIF districts are below) so that the money can be declared as a surplus.

Part of the surplus would be given to the Chicago Public Schools, where it would have gone had property tax revenue never been diverted to the TIF.

What is TIF? Quick answer: All of the new property tax revenue generated after the date the “Tax Increment Financing” district took effect goes to a fund that can only be spent on certain kinds of projects within that district, while all of the property tax revenue generated at the amount that was collected just before the district took effect continues to go to the city, the school district, and other taxing districts.

Alder Pawar has already picked $16.5 million worth of projects that he’s stopping in order to give back the money to schools.

It’s still very difficult to know how much unallocated money is in a TIF district’s bank account (what is essentially surplus). It’s also still very difficult to figure out which projects have had money allocated to them (called an obligation) but not yet spent.

Patty Wetli reported in DNAinfo Chicago yesterday:

The resolution works as a companion to legislation [actually a resolution] previously introduced by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), which called for the city to funnel unallocated TIF dollars back to CPS. [read the resolution]

Rather than allowing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his budget office to decide where to sweep for TIF surplus dollars, Pawar said aldermen should be leading the effort, stating which TIF projects they’re willing to give up.

Instructions to find TIF districts in your ward

You can use Chicago Cityscape’s Places maps to easily find which TIF districts overlap any of the 50 wards.

  1. Find your ward. Use the 3rd Ward, Alder Pat Dowell because Wetli already explored the 47th Ward TIF districts.
  2. Scroll down to the table called “3rd Ward, Ald. Pat Dowell’s Nearby Places”.
  3. Type “TIF district” in the table’s search form. Gasp at the fact that there are 17 districts that overlap the 3rd Ward.
TIF districts that overlap the 3rd Ward (Alder Dowell)

This screenshot shows 10 of the 17 TIF districts that overlap the 3rd Ward.

Let’s look deep at the TIF district called “24th/Michigan”, 76.7 percent of which is in the 3rd Ward, has several millions of dollars in obligations to vaguely-described projects, to continue paying for already-built projects, or future projects. This includes $6.4 million for the Cermak Green Line station and $4.5 million annually for an unspecified project at the National Teachers Academy pursuant to an intergovernmental agreement with the Chicago Public Schools.

24th/Michigan TIF district

A map of the 24th/Michigan TIF district.

The National Teachers Academy project isn’t even on the city’s mildly useful TIF projects map.

Alder Dowell has her work cut out for her to find projects that are in both the 3rd Ward and in one of the 17 intersecting TIF districts that she would be willing to cut so that the Chicago Public Schools are less broke. The same arduous but noble task belongs to all of the other alders as well.

Adrienne Alexander tells ChiHackNight what she does as a union lobbyist

Adrienne Alexander speaking to ChiHackNight at Braintree. Photo by Chris Whitaker.

Adrienne Alexander speaking to ChiHackNight at Braintree. Photo by Chris Whitaker.

ChiHackNight is Chicago’s weekly event to build, share & learn about civic tech. Me and 100 of my friends (50 of whom are new every week!) meet in the Braintree auditorium on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart. Sign up for notifications on upcoming presenters. The content of my blog post is derived from real-time note taking.

Adrienne Alexander, or @DriXander on Twitter, came to ChiHackNight last night to tell us about her experience as a lobbyist working for the state’s largest public employees union. She lobbies the Chicago City Council and the Illinois state legislature for bills and budget modifications that would impact the members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees council 31.

Members of AFSCME (afs-me) are staff at numerous Chicago city departments and in state government. Alexander watches new bills that come in and analyzes what their impact might have on its members.

She gave the example of the privatization legislation that she lobbied, the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance, for three years. Salon reported on the PTAO in 2013, saying, “[it] is designed to help prevent abuses of privatization, and avoid the kinds of deals negotiated in the past that were intended to help close budget deficits but turned out to be massive boons for corporations and Wall Street while losing long-term revenue for the city.”

Alexander, however, had been battling efforts to privatize city functions earlier. In 2011, she said, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to privatize the water billing group. This would have been realized by amending the budget and reducing the amount budgeted for that group of staff.

“We represented those folks”, she said. “It got a lot of aldermen upset, it was supposed to save $100,000 annually but also lay off 40 people.” It didn’t happen. And neither did the 311 privatization that Emanuel proposed in 2015 for the 2016 budget. 

Alexander said that it was hard to keep the press focused on this issue for three years, because nothing was happening. “If there’s nothing happening, they would say, then there’s nothing to write about”, she said.

It was passed in November 2015. “It’s hard to get things passed that don’t have the mayor’s support,” Alexander said. “A lot of the calls the aldermen get are not about policy, but about alleys, trash, tree trimming, these very ‘quality of life’ issues specific to their ward”. 

There’s a good reason – for them –in all of this, she explained. “You can be the most citywide alderman, really focused on policy, but if you don’t take care of the stuff in your ward then you will lose your election.”

Alexander gave some advice to ChiHackNight members who are building tools that explain why some policies aren’t working and should change. Claire Micklin asked how to get alders to “mobilize on and care about policy issues, and can they affect policy change from the ground up if the mayor isn’t necessarily generating or supporting that policy issue?”

Micklin led the development of “My Building Doesn’t Recycle”, a map where Chicagoans can report that their multi-unit building doesn’t have a third-party recycling service (required if the tenants of a building with 5 or more units request it).

Alexander said “I think there’s not so much a culture of [alders generating their own policy initiatives] here, but I think it’s possible”.

She advised Micklin, and anyone else who’s working to change a city policy, to:

  • Choose your sponsor carefully.
  • Be clear of what your expectations are, have a plan so you can help guide them
  • Have grassroots support, so it’s more than one person coming and talking to them about it
  • Make sure they’re hearing about it from different places, and find out who else they’re listening to.

In each ward, she said, there’s at least one organization that an alder really cares about, so if that organization is making something an issue, or it would be beneficial to that organization, then they could be helpful.

I’ve seen this kind of organization-derived influence a lot in property development matters. If there’s a neighborhood-based organization that purports to represent resident issues in a specific boundary, then the alder who’s receiving a new property development proposal will ask that the developer meet with the organization to gain their approval. I’ve seen situations, especially in the 1st Ward, where the alder supports the development if the organization supports the development.

Alexander concluded her response to Micklin’s question, saying, “It’s really helpful if you can do a lot of the legwork, and you can get the alderman plugged into the process.”

Converting a transit agency’s GTFS to shapefile and GeoJSON with QGIS

Many years ago I wrote a tutorial on how to use an ArcGIS plugin to convert a transit agency’s GTFS package – a group of files that describe when and where their buses and trains stop – into files that could easily be manipulated by popular GIS desktop software.

That was so long ago, before I became an expert in using QGIS, a free and open source alternative to ArcGIS.

This tutorial will show you how to convert GTFS to a shapefile and to GeoJSON so you can edit and visualize the transit data in QGIS.

Prerequisites

First you’ll need to have QGIS installed on your computer (it works with Linux, Mac, and Windows). Second you’ll need a GTFS package for the transit agency of your choice (here’s the one for Pace Suburban Bus*, which operates all suburban transit buses in Chicagoland). You can find another transit agency around the world on the GTFS Data Exchange website.

Section 1: Let’s start

  1. Open QGIS.
  2. Load your GTFS data into the QGIS table of contents (also called the Layers Panel). Click Layer>Add Layer>Add Delimited Text Layer. You will be adding one or two files depending on which ones are provided.

    QGIS add delimited text layer

    Add delimited text layer.

  3. Now, here it can get tricky. Not all transit agencies provide a “shapes.txt” file. The shapes.txt file draws out the routes of buses and trains. If it’s not provided, that’s fine, but if you turn them into routes based on the stops.txt data, then you will have funny looking and impossible routes.

    QGIs browse for the stops.txt file

    Browse for the stops.txt file

  4. Click on “Browse…” and find the “stops.txt”. QGIS will read the file very quickly and determine which fields hold the latitude and longitude coordinates. If its determination is wrong, you can choose a different “X field” (longitude) and “Y field” (latitude).
  5. Click “OK”. A new dialog box will appear asking you to choose a coordinate reference system (EPSG). Choose or filter for “WGS 84, EPSG:4326”. Then click “OK”.
  6. The Pace bus stops in the Chicagoland region are now drawn in QGIS!

    Pace bus stops are shown

    Pace bus stops are shown

  7. If the GTFS package you downloaded includes a “shapes.txt” file (that represents the physical routes and paths that the buses or trains take), import that file also by repeating steps 4 and 5.

Section 2: Converting the stops

It’s really easy now to convert the bus or train stops into a shapefile or GeoJSON representing all of those points.

  1. Right-click the layer “stops” in the table of contents (Layers Panel) and click “Save As…”.
  2. In the “Save vector layer as…” dialog box, choose the format you want, either “ESRI Shapefile” or “GeoJSON”. **
  3. Then click “Browse” to tell QGIS where in your computer’s file browser you want to save the file. Leave the “CRS” as-is (EPSG:4326).

    Convert the bus stops to a shapefile or GeoJSON.

    Convert the Pace bus stops to a shapefile or GeoJSON.

  4. Then click “OK” and QGIS will quickly report that the file has been converted and saved where you specified in step 3.

Section 3: Converting the bus or train routes

The “shapes.txt” file is a collection of points that when grouped by their route number, show the physical routes and paths that buses and trains take. You’ll need a plugin to make the lines from this data.

  1. Install the plugin “Points to Paths”. Click on Plugins>Manage and Install Plugins… Then click “All” and search for “points”. Click the “Points to Paths” plugin and then click the “Install plugin” button. Then click “Close”.

    Install the Points to Paths plugin.

    Install the Points to Paths plugin.

  2. Pace bus doesn’t provide the “shapes.txt” file so we’ll need to find a new GTFS package. Download the GTFS package provided by the Chicago Transit Authority, which has bus and rail service in Chicago and the surrounding municipalities.
  3. Load the CTA’s “shapes.txt” file into the table of contents (Layers Panel) by following steps 4 and 5 in the first section of this tutorial.  Note that this data includes both the bus routes and the train routes.

    QGIS load CTA bus and train stops

    Import CTA bus and train stops into QGIS

  4. Now let’s start the conversion process. Click on Plugins>Points to Paths. In the next dialog box choose the “shapes” layer as your “Input point layer”.
  5. Select “shape_id” as the field with which you want to “Point group field”. This tells the plugin how to distinguish one bus route from the next.
  6. Select “shape_pt_sequence” as the field with which you want to “Point order field”. This tells the plugin in what order the points should be connected to form the route’s line.
  7. Click “Browse” to give the converted output shapefile a name and a location with your computer’s file browser.
  8. Make sure all  of the options look like the one in this screenshot and then click “OK”. QGIS and the plugin will start working to piece together the points into lines and create a new shapefile from this work.

    These are the options you need to set to convert the CTA points (stops) to paths (routes).

    These are the options you need to set to convert the CTA points to paths (routes).

  9. You’ll know it’s finished when the hourglass or “waiting” cursor returns to a pointer, and when you see a question asking if you would like the resulting shapefile added to your table of contents (Layers Panel). Go ahead and choose “Yes”.

    QGIS: CTA bus and train points are converted to paths (routes)

    The CTA bus and train points, provided in a GTFS package, have been converted to paths (routes/lines).

  10. Now follow steps 1-4 from Section 3 to convert the routes/lines data to a shapefile or GeoJSON file.**

Notes

* As of this writing, the schedules in Pace’s GTFS package are accurate as of January 18, 2016. It appears their download link always points to the latest version. Transit schedules typically change several times each year. Pace says, “Only one package is posted at any given time, typically representing Pace service from now until a couple of months in the future. Use the Calendar table to see on which days and dates service in the Trips table are effective.”

** Choose GeoJSON if you want to show this data on a web map (like in Leaflet or the Google Maps API), or if you want to share the data on GitHub.

Cataloging the city’s emails about what staff said regarding Laquan McDonald’s death

Screen grab from the released Laquan McDonald video

The City of Chicago released a trove emails spread over eight PDF files containing 3,000 pages, on New Year’s Eve, wherein city staff, including from the mayor’s office, police department, law department, discussed how they should handle countless requests from the media for information about the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

In the middle of the night on October 20, 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing him.

Over a year later, a dashcam video of the shooting was released, sparking protests, theresignation of Chicago’s Police Chief, a federal investigation, and calls for the Mayor and State’s Attorney to resign.

I set to work that night reading as many as I could, and gathering strangers on Twitter to help read and catalog them.

This blog post is intended to point to the Google Sheet where we – over a dozen people who congregated here via Twitter – recorded the details of each message, including what it said, what we think the communicators meant, and what information was missing.

Read the Laquan McDonald emails catalog.

© 2016 Steven Can Plan

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