I’m here in Rotterdam


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.


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.**


* 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.

#Space4Cycling: Chicago needs intuitive bike lanes and other street markings

Two bicyclists take different routes around this driver blocking the bike lane with their car

In this case at Milwaukee and Green, space was made and well-marked for cycling but no space was outlined for driving. The driver of the black car must pull up this far to see beyond the parked silver car. In the Netherlands they’ve come up with a solution that would work here: shift the green bike lane toward the crosswalk so that the motorist crosses the crosswalk and bike lane at the same time and has space to wait to turn left between the bike lane and the travel lane.

What does an intuitive bike lane or other street marking mean?

It means that the street user can reasonably (yeah) guess, and guess right, what they’re supposed to do.

For bicyclists in Chicago, the lack of bike lane markings that continue to the edge of an intersection (often demarcated at the stop bar) creates an unintuitive bike lane design.

At intersections, an intuitive bike lane design would mean that the bicyclist and the motorist know where and how to position their vehicles in respect to the other, even if there isn’t a car there yet, or there’s not a bike there yet. Many intersections in Chicago that have protected bike lanes do this; especially the ones with separate signal phases. And these intersections work really well for bicyclists: they stand safely away from motorists, and motorists don’t attempt to occupy these spaces.

Inverted sharrow

The “sharrow before and after the intersection because the city dropped the bike lane” is the most common “didn’t make space for cycling” problem. There was plenty of space to make for cycling here, and nearly every other “sharrow…” situation: it’s along the curb and it’s subsidized, curbside parking for drivers.

But currently at dozens, if not hundreds, of Chicago intersections where the bike lane drops before the intersection, you’ll see bicyclists behave and maneuver in several ways, none of which are accommodated by the street’s design.

Some people will bike between two lanes of cars to the front of the line, and when they get there, lacking a bike box or advanced stop line, they’ll stand with their bike in the area between the crosswalk and the stop bar. If the first car is over the stop bar, then people will usually stand with their bike on the crosswalk.

Riding north on Damen towards Fullerton-Elston

The sharrow painted on the pavement, and an accompanying sign saying, “shared lane – yield to bikes” are unintuitive because no one can occupy the same space at the same time, and the symbols don’t communicate who gets first right to a specific part of the road space. In the end, though, in a situation like this, I’ve never seen someone wait back this far on their bike, and many will consider riding on the sidewalk to get to the front. When they get there, though, they won’t find any #space4cycling.

Others will bike between a lane of cars and the curb to get to the front of the line.

New buffered bike lane on Halsted just ends

This is another version of the “sharrow before and after the intersection because the city dropped the bike lane”. Why’d they drop it in this instance? To make space for Halsted Street drivers turning right, and to push more drivers northward through its intersection with Clybourn Avenue.

Others will wait to the side of drivers, and other still will wait behind a line of cars, putting themselves at a major time disadvantage as the people who biked up to the front. Not to mention they’ll choke on more fumes.

Then, when the light turns green, motorists behave differently. Some will follow behind the first bicyclist, while others will try to pass but closely because they’re essentially sharing a lane side-by-side – this exerts a lot of mental stress on the bicyclist.

Where the city has built space that’s absolutely not to be shared (meaning it’s for the exclusive use by people bicycling), then the designs are substandard because they still allow or seem open to driving. Otherwise, though, space for cycling that’s “part time” is only usable space for those holding the most power and not for the people riding bikes who need it.

frankling at washington bike lane (composite image)

In this new design that built a “protected intersection” for bicyclists going north on Franklin and east on Washington Street, the bike space is still a drivable area. (Top photo by Kevin Zolkiewicz; bottom photo by Skip Montanaro)

These deficiencies in Chicago’s bike lane network are often the result of failing to make, or make well, space for cycling from space used for parking or turn lanes.

Bicycling on the Dearborn Street bike lane

Three years after the City of Chicago built the novel and well-used two-way cycle track on one-way Dearborn, this situation north of the track still exists. And somehow they expect drivers on a 4-lane road to travel at 20 MPH.

This is 2015 and we continue to “not make space for cycling” despite every policy that calls for making bicycling in Chicago safe and convenient so that more people will do it. It’s just that in the unwritten policies it says that you can implement that policy if it doesn’t impede driving*.

* The City of Chicago has built many road diets (a reduction in the number of travel lanes) in the last four years, and some before that. A few of these have worked well for bicyclists, like on 55th and Vincennes where they built protected and buffered bike lanes, respectively (and Dearborn through the Loop).

I put road diets in a note after “impede driving” because they’re only done where they also won’t make local traffic more congested on that street or an intersecting streets.

On the face of it, that’s exactly what many people believe they’ll do because a road diet removes or converts lanes and that’s seen as the same as reducing car capacity which will shift that car traffic to other streets. That pretty much doesn’t happen and the city only implements road diets on streets that have MORE capacity than is used.

How to extract highways and subway lines from OpenStreetMap as a shapefile

It’s possible to use Overpass Turbo to extract any object from the OpenStreetMap “planet” and convert it from a GeoJSON or KML file to a shapefile for manipulation and analysis in GIS.

Say you want the subway lines for Mexico City, and you can’t find a GTFS file that you could convert to shapefile, and you can’t find the right files on Sistema de Transporte Colectivo’s website (I didn’t look for it).

Here’s how to extract the subway lines that are shown in OpenStreetMap and save them as a GIS shapefile.

This is my second tutorial to describe using Overpass Turbo. The first extracted places of worship in Cook County. I’ve also used Overpass Turbo to extract a map of campgrounds

Extract free and open source data from OpenStreetMap

  1. Open the Overpass Turbo website and, on the map, search for the city from which you want to extract data. (The Overpass query will be generated in such a way that it’ll only search for data in the current map view.)
  2. Click the “Wizard” button in the top toolbar. (Alternatively you can copy the code below and paste it into the text area on the website and click the “Run” button.)
  3. In the Wizard dialog box, type in “railway=subway” in order to find metro, subway, or rapid transit lines. (If you want to download interstate highways, or what they call motorways in the UK, use “highway=motorway“.) Then click the “build and run query” button.
  4. In a few seconds you’ll see lines and dots (representing the metro or subway stations) on the map, and a new query in the text area. Notice that the query has looked for three kinds of objects: node (points/stations), way (the subway tracks), relation (the subway routes).
  5. If you don’t want a particular kind of object, then delete its line from the query and click the “Run” button. (You probably don’t want relation if you’re just needing GIS data for mapping purposes, and because routes are not always well-defined by OpenStreetMap contributors.)
  6. Download the data by clicking the “Export” button. Choose from one of the first three options (GeoJSON, GPX, KML). If you’re going to use a desktop GIS software, or place this data in a web map (like Leaflet), then choose GeoJSON. Now, depending on what browser you’re using, a couple things could happen after you click on GeoJSON. If you’re using Chrome then clicking it will download a file. If you’re using Safari then clicking it will open a new tab and put the GeoJSON text in there. Copy and paste this text into TextEdit and save the file as “mexico_city_subway.geojson”.
Overpass Turbo screenshot 1 of 2

Screenshot 1: After searching for the city for which you want to extract data (Mexico City in this case), click the “Wizard” button and type “railway=subway” and click run.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 2

Screenshot 2: After building and running the query from the Wizard you’ll see subway lines and stations.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 3

Screenshot 3: Click the Export button and click GeoJSON. In Chrome, a file will download. In Safari, a new tab with the GeoJSON text will open (copy and paste this into TextEdit and save it as “mexico_city_subway.geojson”).

Convert the free and open source data into a shapefile

  1. After you’ve downloaded (via Chrome) or re-saved (Safari) a GeoJSON file of subway data from OpenStreetMap, open QGIS, the free and open source GIS desktop application for Linux, Windows, and Mac.
  2. In QGIS, add the GeoJSON file to the table of contents by either dragging the file in from the Finder (Mac) or Explorer (Windows), or by clicking File>Open and browsing and selecting the file.
  3. Convert it to GeoJSON by right-clicking on the layer in the table of contents and clicking “Save As…”
  4. In the “Save As…” dialog box choose “ESRI Shapefile” from the dropdown menu. Then click “Browse” to find a place to save this file, check “Add saved file to map”, and click the “OK” button.
  5. A new layer will appear in your table of contents. In the map this new layer will be layered directly above your GeoJSON data.
Overpass Turbo screenshot 4

Screenshot 4: The GeoJSON file exported from Overpass Turbo has now been loaded into the QGIS table of contents.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 5

Screenshot 5: In QGIS, right-click the layer, select “Save As…” and set the dialog box to have these settings before clicking OK.

Query for finding subways in your current Overpass Turbo map view

This has been generated by the overpass-turbo wizard.
The original search was:
// gather results
// query part for: “railway=subway”
/*relation is for "routes", which are not always
well-defined, so I would ignore it*/
// print results
out body;
out skel qt;

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