Transportation infrastructure is for more than transportation’s sake

Transportation infrastructure should be designed for more than carrying people through places. It also needs to be about carrying people to places, because transportation is for moving people as much for commerce as it is for being social.

The Dutch consider “social safety” when designing and redesigning streets (they’re constantly upgrading streets, roads, and entire neighborhoods to standards that seem to be frequently updated).

Mark Waagenbuur posted a new video this week showing a new tunnel under Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station in Amsterdam, and he highlighted several of its social safety features.

The screen grab I embedded above – and posted on Twitter where it got a lot of shares and likes – shows an aspect that’s common across all cycling facilities in built-up areas: it’s wide enough to ride side by side with your friend, mother, or lover, with still enough room on your left for people to pass you in the same lane.

Another aspect of this tunnel is that it has sound-absorbing panels. Often tunnels have a disturbing echo that inhibit comfortable communication – my new home office has an echo and it makes it hard to have conversations on the phone here because I hear an annoying feedback. The communication is important to be able to hear people cycling with you, but also to hear what other people are doing.

The tunnel has a final feature that supports social safety: clear, wide, and open sight lines. Not just from end to end, but also to the sides. It’s hard to hide around the corner because the breadth of vision is so wide that you would see someone lurking in the corner.

For Chicagoans who use one of the many old tunnels under Lake Shore Drive connecting the “mainland” to the nation’s most popular trail along Lake Michigan, the feeling of claustrophobia and invisibility of what’s around the bend is too common. New tunnels, which I prefer to bridges because you go downhill first, should be a priority when the State of Illinois rebuilds Lake Shore Drive north of Grand Avenue in the next decade. This is what those tunnels look like; sometimes they have mirrors.

We can sell ads on the Lakefront Trail underpasses, but they're still shitty to walk through

People want more walkability and property developers can make it happen

Columbus Commons

The Columbus Commons in the tationty center. Photo by Brandon Bartoszek

This is my favorite part of Sam Schwartz’s book “Street Smart” so far. You’ll find it on page 117 following a discussion of Walk Score, a tool used mostly by realtors that measures “walkability” of any place in American cities based on the location and diversity of services, shops, and amenities nearby.

Every way you slice the data confirms that what all the polls say is true: people want more walkability.

Why, then, is there so little of it?

Why is there such a mismatch between the supply of, and the demand for, walkable neighborhoods?

Is it because, as one observer wrote, “Americans would like to live in places that don’t really exist”?

Do you live in a walkable place? Answer, and then check your Walk Score. I’m curious to know if they match.

Schwartz answers these questions with “not really”.

They want to live in places that do exist, but there are far too few of them.

Schwartz mentions that the housing prices in the most walkable cities – San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City – are so expensive, but being walkable is what makes them the “coolest” cities.

Higher Walk Scores positively correlate with higher housing prices, “which is a problem”, Schwartz says.

[It’s] also an opportunity. By definition, only a few neighborhoods can be the coolest places to live. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make everywhere cooler.

Many pages later Schwartz describes how one city attempted to get property developers to make their proposed buildings or complexes more receptive to walking and biking (active transportation).

Columbus, Ohio, needed to lose some body weight. The city’s sprawling nature contributed to 59 percent of adults being obese or overweight, and 38 percent of children in the third grade (here’s the citation).

The Columbus Healthy Places program was formed in 2006 and implemented by the transportation and public health departments. Here’s one of the strategies they undertook to affect the built environment.

[The transportation and public health officials] persuaded the [buildings] department to grant them an opportunity to comment on all requests from developers to rezone a particular bit of land.

With that opportunity, Schwartz explained on page 133, they proposed that developments with shopping centers, bus stops, schools, park, libraries, drugstores, or grocery stores, within half a mile of residences, “include a suite of active transportation elements” like bike parking, connections to bike lanes and trails, and wider sidewalks.

It worked, he said. Before the program only seven percent of projects requesting a zoning change included active transportation elements, but after it was reviewed by the Columbus Healthy Places managers it “jumped” to 64 percent.

A century old former radium extraction site in Bronzeville gets building permit

Map of the Carnotite Reduction Company site near Bronzeville

The Carnotite Reduction Company site near Bronzeville. Map: OpenStreetMap

A recently-issued building permit on 26th Street just east of King Drive in the Prairie Shores neighborhood of the Near South Side community area (near Bronzeville) caught my eye.

Installation of temporary wood poles and aerial cable, to powering air monitors, for the Carnotite Reduction Company site project

Carnotite wasn’t a word I’ve heard before, and “Carnotite Reduction Company” isn’t a business I’ve heard of before, either.

I searched Bing and found that 4 of the 5 results were about cleaning up a contaminated site, and one of the results was a letter in PDF form hosted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website prepared by a scientist at the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The letter is 11 pages long and tells the story about Carnotite Reduction Company, which had a factory in 1915 on what’s now known as the Michael Reese Hospital site, the buildings of which have all been demolished.

The Carnotite Co. mainly produced radium, along with some uranium and vanadium as byproducts.

The Carnotite Co. owned and operated mines in Colorado and Utah. In 1919, it was one of four companies that mined 95% of the carnotite ore produced in Colorado. The U.S. dominated the world radium market until 1922, when Belgium began using pitchblende ore from the Belgian Congo. The pitchblende was 40 to 100 times more pure than carnotite, and by 1923, Belgian competition ended carnotite ore processing in the U.S.

This article from the “Chicago Chemical Bulletin” publication in 1917 linked on the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s website about the cleanup project describes carnotite ore and mining process. They’ve cataloged this site as EPA ID# ILN000510371.

Chicago Chemical Bulletin: 1917 article about the Carnotite Reduction Company

The letter describes where radioactive, contaminated soil was found during boring tests made within the last three years, and how it potentially got there. The factory was extracting radium there, for an exploding cancer research trend, until 1920.

The company, the EPA believes, may have disposed its waste into public infrastructure.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) suspects that the Carnotite Co. may have sent this liquid waste into the sewer, floor drains, or reintroduced it into the process for further refining. Because streets in the area, including Inglehart Court, were abandoned during the redevelopment in the 1950s and 1960s, sewers running along those abandoned streets likely also were abandoned. Other options for liquid waste disposal commonly used at the time included streams or ditches (with Lake Michigan in the vicinity), waste ponds, dug wells, and dumping wastes on porous ground (such as the sand on-site).

When the City of Chicago was preparing the site in 2009 for a potential Olympic Village for its 2016 Olympic Games bid – buying the property for an insane amount of cash and then razing it all, while eventually losing the bid to Rio de Janeiro – conducted “Phase I and Phase II environmental investigations” but didn’t survey for radiological contamination and didn’t uncover an important survey from 30 years prior.

The Illinois Department of Public Health found radioactive contamination after a “radiological surface survey” of the Michael Reese hospital site in 1979.

The IDPH Division of Radiological Health concluded that the contamination did not pose an immediate health threat, but should be taken into account before any future construction. In 1979, IDPH did not notify USEPA about the contamination they found.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency surveyed the site in August 2009 and found the contamination, alerted the EPA, and met with the City of Chicago to discuss remediation.

The letter details further testing by AECOM, a global transportation, infrastructure, and engineering company, the levels of contamination, and risk assessment. It appears that the contamination won’t be a danger to most people.

The Illinois Department of Public Health concludes that exposure at the Carnotite Co. site to the area with the greatest surface radium and uranium concentration for 20 minutes per day, five days per week, 250 days per week, for 50 years is not expected to harm people’s health. IDPH considers this to be a maximum likely exposure scenario, given current conditions at the site.

It notes that a change in land use – the site is currently occupied by vacant hardscape, tennis courts, a park, sidewalks, and grassy areas – “could increase exposure duration”, especially if housing was built here.

The City of Chicago applied for a license in 2013 to temporarily store radioactive material on site before shipping it to a disposal facility. The EPA last updated its website in April 2014 to say that it was considering this application.

How Chicago accomplishes “not planning”

Bloomingdale Trail meeting

The Bloomingdale Trail planning process was the highest-quality I’ve experienced or witnessed. It’s an exception, and even then, it wasn’t integrated with any neighborhood or citywide plan to connect the trail to other networks of infrastructure. In essence, how people left or arrived to the path and parks wasn’t addressed. I expressed my pleasure at the process in 2011

A friend said to me recently, “Chicago’s whole being is based on not really having planning.” It’s the answer to a question us Chicago planners get from people around the country, typically regarding how the city controls the built environment. Zoning is really the only “tool” it gives itself in the absence of any citywide or neighborhood-level comprehensive plan.


Doesn’t a new zoning code serve as a kind of plan?

It’s not a plan, and it’s a bad kind of planning because it doesn’t set goals or policies that could address the questions below (population loss, vacancies, parks and recreation). The city last revised its zoning code in 2004.

Using zoning as planning is made worse because, as mentioned in an example below, aldermen constantly “spot zone” by changing the zoning for one land parcel to something wildly different from the parcels that surround it. This doesn’t necessarily create incompatible land uses for the desired proposal (a brewery with a public taproom area in a traditional retail area would likely need a zoning change) but it creates unreliability as to the future of that street or neighborhood, because it subject to the whims of the alderman.

It needlessly complicates planning for developers’ business plans, and that of community development corporations who are trying to find land.

What’s the city’s plan for the lakefront museum, park, and trail system?

Accept the first proposal despite longstanding traditions and laws that are supposed to prevent new buildings between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. Even go a step further and change a law, at the state level, upon which a lawsuit opposing the Lucas Museum is based to remove the grounds for said lawsuit. Consider that the existing use is for tailgating on a surface parking lot and that the new use would be better (even though there’s a net positive number of parking spaces, and some of those parking spaces would be in the same space, but on grass outside the museum building). Don’t attempt to come up with alternative uses. Delay the release of a Museum Campus Transportation Plan.

What’s the city’s plan for vacant lots in high-demand neighborhoods?

Downzone it ahead of time so that the developer who wants to propose a non-conforming use has to come to the alderman to ask for a zoning change. What’s more likely to happen, and has happened many times over, is that a single-family home will be built. Next to a 24-hour train line.

What about these “corridor” or neighborhood-specific plans I’ve seen?

One of the strongest plans has been the Milwaukee Avenue Corridor Plan from 2008. The problem with these is that it was created by a previous alderman using different ward boundaries, so the current alderman (or more than one!) have no obligation to follow it. But they do have an incentive: many people who participated in creating that plan still live there, and care more about the street than they do what ward boundaries cut across it.

What’s the city’s plan to deal with 50 public schools it closed?

Deal with them one by one, after their closures, as time and resources allow.

What’s the city’s plan to rebuild its population?

A massive portion of the loss of 200,000 people from 2000 to 2010 was the loss of public housing units. The Chicago Housing Authority, which is separate from the City Council’s governance, has $400 million in its bank account and has replaced only a few thousand public housing units. You could say it’s about a decade behind on its plan to restore public and affordable housing units. Two other regulations (revised ARO and TOD ordinances) are attempting to build more affordable housing but will not make as much of a dent as the CHA doing its job.

The city is seeing more and more high-end residential construction concentrated in the Loop, South Loop, and Near North Side, areas that were already seeing growth during the 2008+ recession.

What other examples are out there?

The new CTA budget

[I published an edited version of this post on Streetsblog Chicago.]

The Chicago Transit Authority gleefully tweeted that “fares [will] stay the same” and they’ll continue to “maintain/improve existing services”.

There are so many points to be made.

The medium on which they sent this message is irrelevant because Mayor Rahm Emanuel will parrot this at his press conference this afternoon at the Addison Blue Line station. He’ll say something that he’s holding fares down in order to support working families, yet he (because he runs the agency) can still get projects done, like renovating the Addison station to be accessible.

Fares should go up frequently, instead of making big jumps every 3-5 years. The price of things changes much more frequently and it’s what an agency providing such an important transportation service needs to do to be less constrained in making buses and trains run. And planning and funding for more buses and trains, under the strain of growing ridership. The CTA has the expertise to develop a long-term plan that sets out fare increases annually, removing the surprise, “Will this be the year?”

Fares should go up in increments smaller than quarters of a dollar! 0.25, 0.50, 0.75, and 1.00 are not the only choices available. Requiring riders who pay in cash – who become rarer each day – to pay with dollar bills and quarters isn’t a “convenience”, it’s annoying. It gives the CTA less flexibility in settling on the right price, and it means I can’t use these dimes and nickels that are piling on my nightstand. Quarters are for laundry.

“Fares will stay the same” is what Emanuel said two years ago when the price of passes was increased. Apparently causing people to spend more money to ride the train the same amount of times, if they have passes, is not a fare increase. This year none of the prices are changing. Hiking pass prices and keeping the base fare (single rides + transfers) the same can still hurt a low income rider: it puts the discounted fare further out of reach. Many Chicagoans are unable to put down $25 at a time for a ticket that would pay for all of their rides that week, so they pay per use, and end up paying more.

What holding the line on fare increases does is detrimental to riders and to CTA workers. It continues to defer fixing the problem of underfunded transit. The CTA, and its fellow transportation providers, Metra and Pace, are unable to pay for what people need them to do.

Additionally it’ll mean that, in order to keep costs in check, the CTA might freeze wages again. Because professionals providing Chicagoans with quality transportation services are the city’s and state’s piggy bank, and should sacrifice their wages due to “hard times”.

That’s the problem to be dealt with “soon”, but there’s an immediate problem, that Jon Hilkevitch explains in the Tribune:

The governor and lawmakers in Springfield have not agreed on a 2016 budget and the state still owes the CTA $221 million in capital-improvement funding that was expected in 2015, transit officials said.

But hey, “air quality” money is going to pay $18 million to widen a bunch of intersections so people can drive faster through them – until more people switch to driving through that fast intersection.

The inside track on how Aldertrack works

Mike Fourcher and Claudia Morell talk about Aldertrack at ChiHackNight

Crappy iPhone shot of Mike Fourcher (left) and Claudia Morell (right) talking about the information that Aldertrack collects on Chicago City Council, boards, commissions, and electeds.

Mike Fourcher, founder of Aldertrack, and perpetual “news startup antagonist” (okay, I don’t remember the actual adjective he used), joined his colleague Claudia Morell, a reporter, and us at ChiHackNight on Tuesday night to explain how Aldertrack works.

ChiHackNight heard from Aldertrack’s former staffer Jimm Dispensa earlier in the year about the tools and processes they use to publish, but it’s hard to call tonight’s meeting a followup from the meeting with Dispensa, because they were focused on entirely different parts of the operation.

Tonight was more about the politics that Aldertrack “interferes” with.

As with most of my posts derived from my notes on the ChiHackNight collaborative agenda document these are paraphrased sentences, not quotations.

Presentation title: “Not really open data”

There are ~70 different boards and commissions in the City of Chicago, but information about each is sparse. Most don’t have their own website, but the bigger ones do.

In our quarterly report product – the first was published in August – we display a picture, a name, background on their day job, an email, and a phone number. It was hard to find this kind of information. If their appointment requires City Council approval then it can be a little easier to find the resolution that appointed them.

Issues in hunting down information

  • Sometimes information didn’t match.
  • Sometimes the source documents is missing data, like the appointment or expiration date.
  • The mayor’s fashion council, we weren’t sure if they met, what their purpose was.
  • Eventually we found pension board compensation amounts in state law.

Fourcher: City agency staff have basically been trained that they should never answer any questions from the press. The rule is to refer press to the mayor’s press office, so that they can make it hard for the press to get information. There’s a lot of information that’s obscure, whether purposely or not.

We published the Quarterly Report as a PDF but eventually we want to put it online so that you can click on someone’s name and see what other boards they serve on.

The content we find, and put in our Quarterly Report and, is something we refer to in our reporting.

[I didn’t take any notes about the, but there’s a lot of information in the questions and answers below.]


Alex Soble: Does the city council do more than we think they do?

Claudia: There’s this perception that aldermen are a rubber stamp, or just there to approve the mayor’s agenda. I think that’s part of the problem.

Because people think that the news media is less likely to cover the things that are covered in the “big” committees (like finance). The education committee doesn’t seem to matter to a wider audience.

We put the TIF expenditures data in our newsletter, and I don’t think that’s something you found in the Tribune.

I also come from the NYC city council, where it operates differently. There’s less conflict in Chicago, especially when it comes to the budget [Claudia described how the city council ripped Bloomberg’s proposed budget to shreds and inserted their own pieces.]. There’s no speaker here that decides what bills get voted on, while Chicago’s mayor presides over the meeting.

Mike: Chicago isn’t a true representative democracy, but it’s less of a terrible thing than people think it is.

Eric Sherman: Why isn’t the wiki open?

Mike: It’s our site, and we don’t want to take the risk that people write dumb things. We close it off to everyone. We would love to hear from someone who has information, and we would check it, and then post it. We want to run it through the journalistic process we adhere to.
Claudia: We don’t have enough staff to moderate the wiki.
Mike: I don’t think even one full-time person could do it.

Forest Gregg: Many of the application processes are hard to figure out in Chicago. I love the documenting you’ve been doing of all the different commissions. What have you heard from users if they would like to hear things more on how things work? Lucas Museum…a number of steps that have to happen, a number of bodies that have to sign off on it. For developers, there’s a cottage industry around permit expeditors, but there’s the same problem of knowing how to step through other development processes.

Claudia: Land use boards…Zoning Board of Appeals that’s a 4-member panel that decides whether or not you can get a special use permit (to build a set back garage, or something).
Mike: We initially had this idea that we would have a regular city council product, and a separate zoning product. What we learned is that people who have an interest in land use, have a passing interest. Once the thing you’re interested in is “over”, like a proposed project that gets approved, then you’re not interested anymore.
The people that fall into the category of perpetual interest in land use, they all know each other. We decided to roll that into the main subscription. We have thought of doing trainings on how zoning works, here’s how you build a building in Chicago.
Forest: I think you’re in a good position to…make some flow charts. That information is shockingly hard to find right now, unless you have a professional interest in that area.

Jerry Mandujano: You started with campaigns [I missed the rest of the question] Is there something else that people should know?

Claudia: Property taxes, most other press focuses on how the changes would affect you on a personal level. What we do, we tend to be focused on the nitty gritty, the language of the ordinance, what conversations are going on around City Hall.
Mike: The demands of most of the news organizations is very different, and we have a blank slate. Every time someone zigs, let’s zag, and see what happens. If you read just one day of our product, you’re going to react, “Omg, what is this stuff? There’s so much detail.” If you read us over time then you’re going to get a good picture.
Fran Spielman, that woman is a freaking machine at the Sun-Times, she writes so much, and I mean this in the most positive way. She went on vacation for two weeks, and on the day she came back she published three articles. She has her head above water and she’s easily doing backstrokes.

[Someone commented that there used to be the City News Bureau which did a lot of what Aldertrack is doing.]

Steven Vance: Alderman show their true selves on social media. Many alderman have few followers and I think you’re spreading their thoughts further than they have been themselves. (I was referring to a new section on the free Aldertrack newsletter where they were posting links to weird or interesting tweets.)

Mike: And we’ve been getting some ire for that! There’s a lot of information out there, and we scoop it up, sift through it, and that’s shoe leather reporting. There’s a lot of sitting on the phone and calling people.

5 reasons to come to Bikecitement Night!


West Town Bikes sent these young adults to Youth Bike Summit in New York City (2013). Photo: Michael Young

I am copying this message straight from the West Town Bikes e-newsletter I just received, with some personal notes in brackets. WTB holds multiple fundraisers each year. Tour de Fat is their largest, but we need something to do in the winter, right?

Bikecitement in three weeks is a time for people to get to know more about West Town Bikes, its people and its programs, than possible at Tour de Fat – all while enjoying Revolution Brewing refreshments.

1. Support one of Chicago’s premier bike-based, youth development organizations.
[I support it in multiple ways: blogging about it now, going to their events, taking friends there to help them fix their bikes, and buying my bike parts there. I also make monetary donations.]

2. Meet our talented & enthusiastic youth leaders.
[The youth who join West Town Bikes – either as students, or as apprentices and later staff members – are the coolest, brightest young adults I know.]

3. Bid on auction items like theater and performance tickets, dinner at fine restaurants, Chicago sports memorabilia, and much, much more.

[I don’t like going out to these things, so I’ll leave room on the silent auction bidding sheet for your name.]

4. Enjoy craft beers & tasty treats from Revolution Brewery.

[Revolution Brewing makes the best beer, Eugene Porter, and donates a portion of its profits to bike culture endeavors – the more you eat and drink at Revolution the more money they can devote to that cause. The founder, Josh Deth, is also an urban planner and basically did his own zoning analysis about parking requirements for the brewpub.]

5. Enjoy the “Bike Scene” with the West Town Staff!

[The staff, what can I say, are committed, passionate, and fun to hang out with.]

West Town Bikes

Emily Leidenfrost, a program coordinator at West Town Bikes, helps kids make crafts at Tour de Fat this summer. Photo: Daniel Rangel

Addendum: This summer I co-taught a bike planning class with Emily Leidenfrost. She led the class while I joined a few times each week to teach urban planning and bike infrastructure design concepts. I instructed a group of five high school students (most of whom became college freshman last month) to collect and analyze data, and prepare a professional report that described the problem of bicycling among key sites along Western Avenue in multiple neighborhoods.

Monday, November 9, 2015 from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM

at Revolution Brewing’s brewpub in Logan Square
2323 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60647

Buy tickets now!

There was no contest: I had to visit the Netherlands again

Me bicycling on the Hovenring in Eindhoven

Me bicycling on the Hovenring in Eindhoven. It’s the world’s first, floating bicycle roundabout. It’s a gratuitous way to solve the problem the city had at this intersection outside the built up area. Despite its frivolity, it wasn’t as expensive as something that solves a similar problem in the United States. 6.3 million euros in 2012. The Navy Pier Flyover in Chicago is over $60 million in 2014.

In my last trip to Europe, which concluded three weeks ago, I hadn’t yet scheduled where I would stay on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights on my final full week (I came home the following Tuesday).

On that Monday I was in Barcelona but my mother was going back home and I had to move on. On Thursday I was going to be in Bonn.

“Where should I go?” I debated. I considered Morocco (that was a complicated journey and I didn’t want to go alone), and Salzburg or Austria. Then, after talking to a couple before and during my trip I decided I would stay in Lyon, France.

Once I was in Seville, though, right before heading to Barcelona, I started looking at possible journeys from Barcelona to Lyon. They weren’t looking good. They were cheap, but the timing was bad – flights weren’t frequent enough, departed and arrived at odd times, and the train journeys were long.

But “timing” turned out to be just an excuse to avoid having to go to France and skip going to the Netherlands. I really wanted to go to the Netherlands. It wasn’t possible for me to skip visiting some Dutch friends and the greatest country for transportation and utility cycling. I still had more things to see there!

Rotterdam Centraal (train station)

My favorite train station in Europe: Rotterdam Centraal.

My friend Daniel in Rotterdam was available to host me for a couple nights. There was no contest anymore: I booked a flight on Vueling from Barcelona to Rotterdam, just 90 minutes away. And he was even going to pick me up at the tiny airport so we could take the bus to the central train station and get me an OV-fiets bicycle (it’s the national bike-sharing system that requires a Dutch bank account to rent).

On this trip to the Netherlands, though, I only added one new Dutch city: Eindhoven, where I had to see the Hovenring. I paid an arm and a leg to get there – thanks, expensive intercity Dutch train travel prices!

So here’re the 16 cities where I’ve stayed or visited in the Netherlands, in chronological order:

  • Amsterdam (2011, 2012, 2014)
  • Utrecht (2011, 2015)
  • Houten (2011)
  • Zandvoort an Zee (2012)
  • Den Haag/The Hague (2012)
  • Delft (2014)
  • Den Bosch/s’Hertogenbosch (2014)
  • Nijmegen (2014)
  • Arnhem (2014)
  • Groningen (2014)
  • Veendam, Bourtange (Spanish fort) (2014)
  • Leeuwarden (2014)
  • Haarlem (2014)
  • Rotterdam (2014, 2015)
  • Delft (2014, 2015)
  • Eindhoven (2015)

The list excludes cities I only transited or biked through. I’ve transited through Venlo half a dozen times by now. It’s on the German border. It’s a tiny station, tiny town, but has a lot of intercity traffic. I’ve biked through Pijnacker twice, now: once while biking from Rotterdam to Delft in 2014, and the second time, in 2015, I took the metro there and biked the rest of the way to Delft (this time to see the new train station).

I’ve also biked to the Hook of Holland in 2014; not the city, but the port, canal, and to see the Maeslantkering, a flood barrier that’s part of Delta Works.

Updated: 311 is back in the spotlight after 3 years

Updated October 21: Rahm has dropped the plan to privatize 311, but explained that the offer was less about saving $1 million annually than it was to upgrade the tech. I still don’t think it was explained well enough – or challenged enough by City Council – why a privatization was the “only” way to get an upgrade worth $25-50 million, or why the upgrade would cost that much. Then, there’s still the open question as to what happened to the RFP in 2014, looking for bidders to create a new 311 system. I’m also curious if any of the nascent civic-oriented CRM and Open311 startups would have a reasonable chance at responding to an RFP or privatization effort, or if the RFP process would largely exclude new or small players. 

Last week, for budget “season” in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed privatizing the 311 system – where citizens and aldermen request services from any city department, and citizens get information about city services – as a way to pay for the technology upgrade the system desperately needs.

There are over 300 service request types (codes), of which many are available to the public (the rest being for internal or aldermanic use). Here’s the full list of codes and the department that administers or manages the requests.

The topic of analyzing 311 data came up tonight at ChiHackNight, and I talked to a DePaul University Student interested in using their predictive analytics study on this rich (maybe) dataset.

I brought them up to speed on the changes made to the 311 technology system and created this “status” document to demonstrate the wild and whacky year of changes in 2012, and the stagnation since then. I’m publishing this because I also want to collect ideas and feedback about things I don’t know regarding the progress in redeveloping the tech that powers Chicago’s 311.

311 technology chronology


Code for America fellows come to Chicago and work with DoIT to develop 13 service request types (codes) for Open311, a layer on 311 that enables third-party apps to submit new service requests – with photos. See what other cities have adopted Open311.

I pled with the Chief Technology Officer at the time, John Tolva, holding a new position in the mayor’s office, to enable 5 of the bicycle and pedestrian-related codes in the Open311 system, so that I can build apps for Grid Chicago, and later, Streetsblog Chicago, readers to request city services that impact the safety and quality around walking and biking.

Ben Sheldon, one of the four Code for America fellows, made, and it’s one of the few Open311-based apps that’s still working (most of the apps linked to from this Smart Chicago Collaborative blog post are dead).


The City of Chicago releases an RFP to remake the 311 system (September). One aspect of operating the system I noticed that better tech could probably have a big impact on is the number of service request taken by phone: 74%!

Channels through which 311 service requests are submitted

According to the RFP issued in 2013, 74% of service requests are taken by phone. Only about 6% are done through the web.


Companies respond to the RFP (I assume). Are these responses hosted anywhere? Smart Chicago Collaborative made Chicago Works For You, a dashboard that’s also  the only Chicago + Open311 map.

The RFP never made it past “Step 4” in the Bid Tracker, or, “Short List Determination”. The Bid Tracker is really unhelpful at this point, though, because it doesn’t mark the date at which Step 4 was reached.

Bid tracker for the 311 RFP

The helpful (to a point) Bid Tracker for the 311 RFP.


Mayor Emanuel announces a proposal to privatize the 311 system, including the technology and the staff, to be able to pay for the tech upgrade. Emanuel says it would save the city about $1 million annually.

Aldermen don’t like this. While I haven’t read up on their specific complaints, I believe they have to do with the quality of the jobs that would exist under a private operator.

Currently the 73** employees work for the city and have benefits like healthcare and probably some retirement assistance. The new jobs could be, well, anything, and if they’re like other call centers, probably pay less and could have worse benefits.

There’s also the question of whether anyone else can actually do the same (or better) job for less money (a question that 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer raised). That means someone other than people in the mayor’s office need to be able to get a detailed look at the expenses of the 311 call center and tech.

Andy Shaw questions why the privatization proposal is coming up now: “The timing is odd because the administration recently sent an enlightened privatization ordinance to the Council for approval, so it’s logical for the city to wait until it’s analyzed, and then adopted, before embarking on new privatization initiatives” and “the ordinance has 40 aldermanic co-sponsors but hasn’t been heard in committee yet, so it’s premature to consider privatizing 3-1-1”.

Shaw suggests using the do-nothing legally-separate-entity Chicago Infrastructure Trust to upgrade the service. (The new board members Emanuel installed this year have “set an ambitious goal”, Shaw said, to convert the city’s streetlights to something more energy efficient. It would likely work by splitting the cost savings with a private contractor.

** The city’s salary dataset on the open data portal lists 56 employees with “311” in the job title. They collectively earn $3,519,732.00 annually.

Thank you to Derek Eder, Eric Sherman, George Nakhleh, and Dan O’Neil for the discussion and links.

Updated Monday, Oct. 12 to add quotes from Better Government Association’s Andy Shaw (a former investigative reporter for a TV station).

How to make a map of places of worship in Cook County using OpenStreetMap data

The screenshot shows the configuration you need to find and download places of worship in Cook County, Illinois, using the Overpass Turbo website.

If you’re looking to make a map of churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship, you’ll need data. The Yellow Pages won’t help because you can’t download that. And Google Maps doesn’t let you have a slice of their database, either. That’s where OpenStreetMap comes in. It’s a virtual planet that anyone can edit and anyone can have for free.

First we need to figure out what tag people use to identify these places. Sometimes on OSM there are multiple tags that identify the same kind of place. You should prefer the one that’s either more accurate (and mentioned as such in the wiki) or widespread.

The OSM tag info website says that editors have added over 1.2 million places of worship to the planet using “amenity=place_of_worship”.

Now that we know which tag to look for, we need an app that will help us get those places, but only within our desired boundary. Open up Overpass Turbo, which is a website that helps construct calls to the Overpass API, which is one way to find and download data from OSM.

In the default Overpass Turbo query, there’s probably a tag in brackets that says “[amenity=drinking_fountain]”. Change that to say “[amenity=place_of_worship]” (without the quotes). Now change the viewport of the map to show only the area in which you want Overpass Turbo to look for these places of worship. In the query this argument is listed as “({{bbox}})”.

The map has a search bar to find boundaries (cities, counties, principalities, neighborhoods, etc.) so type in “Cook County” and press Enter. The Cook County in Illinois, United States of America, will probably appear first. Select that one and the map will zoom to show the whole county in the viewport.

Now that we’ve set the tag to [amenity=place_of_worship] and moved the map to show Cook County we can click “Run”. In a few seconds you’ll see a circle over each place of worship.

It’s now simple to download: Click on the “Export” button and click “KML” to be able to load the data into Google Earth, “GeoJSON” to load it into a GIS app like QGIS, or “save GeoJSON to gist” to create an instant map within GitHub.

© 2015 Steven Can Plan

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