CategoryBusiness

Update on my work this summer: Chicago Bike Guide now on Android

Yesterday I released the first version of my app for the Android operating system. The Chicago Bike Guide (born the Chicago Offline Bike Map) had been available for iOS since April 2012 and the most frequent question I heard was, “When will you have an Android version?” At first I was probably joking when I said it was coming soon as I had no interest in it. But things change: more people kept asking, I was slowly learning how to publish an app for Android, I bought a tablet myself on which to test it, and Android eclipsing iOS as the most dominant mobile OS had some effect.

I use PhoneGap software to compile the Chicago Bike Guide for iOS. My app is actually an HTML5 compliant website using jQueryMobile and PhoneGap allows this website to interact with some of the hardware on the iPhone (like the GPS components) and software (native notification buttons). PhoneGap compiles for Android and other operating systems, but my experience using the Android emulator put a damper on my progress.

I would install Google’s software development kit (SDK), including Eclipse, and load the app (er, website) into the emulator and it would be terribly slow. It didn’t emulate the Android experience very well. I did this twice; I don’t remember making any additional progress the second time but I probably made different progress, slightly expanding my understanding of how to make Android apps.

PhoneGap 3.0.0 came around, and its use requires focusing on the command line to build apps. In prior versions, for iOS, you would add “helper software” to Xcode but now it creates the Xcode project for you. It was easier to use this time around, as the process in this version was simpler to understand, use, and the documentation had improved. I felt it was time to try again to make an Android version so I “made the plunge” and bought the Asus MeMO Pad HD 7″ tablet from my local Micro Center.

At first I used the tablet to test my app (website) as a website, loading it over the network from my Mac’s web server. After fixing a lot of the display bugs I moved into native app testing. One command, “cordova build android”, and an APK I can email to my tablet appears 30 seconds later. This is one of the few areas where Android has iOS beat in terms of testing.

The iOS development environment requires so much setting up with developer profiles, team profiles, and other gunk I forget the names of. With Android, you simply email the ChicagoBikeGuide-debug.apk file to your device and open it in the Gmail app. Voilá.

After getting this far I stopped progress on developing for Android as I wanted to issue a new version for iOS with features and bug fixes I’d been working on since the last release in July (version 0.8.2). With that out of the way last week, and the new version waiting for Apple’s review, I worked on the Android version on Sunday and finished it today.

Did you catch that? I uploaded version 0.8.3 for iOS on October 3 and it’s been in review since then while in less than 24 hours I set up my Google Play Developer Console ($25 per year), merchant account, store listing, and started selling the Android version.

N.B. Google Play doesn’t allow you to switch the app between free and not free like the iTunes App Store does, so I cannot release it for free during a short promotional period like I did for the iOS platform.

After a sufficient period (a few days, perhaps) of no reports of it crashing, I will promote the Android version heavily.

New iOS app offers most advanced Divvy route directions

Chicago Bike Route for iOS

Walking directions from my house to the Divvy station at the CTA California Blue Line station, and then from there to the Divvy station at LaSalle/Illinois Streets. Lastly, there’s walking directions to some arbitrary N LaSalle Street address.

Adam Gluck and Andrew Beinstein showed up at OpenGov Hack Night on July 16, 2013, to show off the technical concept of their forthcoming app for iOS devices. I looped them into the Divvy app-making progress I and others were undertaking (documented on a shared Google Doc).

They said they would make their app was going quite different from all of the eight apps for using Divvy that have since launched before theirs: it would offer directions for walking to the nearest Divvy station with available bikes, directions to the Divvy station nearest their destination with open docks, and then walking directions from that end station to their destination.

Chicago Bike Route launched Friday last week. Currently only three of the eight iOS apps released before Chicago Bike Route have routing. CBR takes directions to a new level by giving you directions from where you are to where you want to go, and not necessarily from a specific Divvy station (like my Chicago Bike Guide does). Instead, CBR gives you complete directions between origin and destination and smartly picks the nearest Divvy station with available bikes. Now, I believe most often this will just be the nearest Divvy station, period, as it’s relatively rare for a station to lack bicycles.

The app uses Google Directions and for every trip makes a maximum of three calls to their API; counts against the app’s free quota from Google. The first call gets walking directions from the origin to the nearest Divvy station with available bikes, and the second call gets bicycling directions to the Divvy station with available docks nearest the destination, and the third call (assuming the destination isn’t that Divvy station) gets walking directions from the end Divvy station to your destination. The next step, I believe, is to have the app use a prediction model to accurately choose the end Divvy station. A lot can happen at that Divvy station in the 30 minutes (or whatever) it takes to get there. It may not have open docks when you arrive.

Two other suggestions I have: an improvement to the autocomplete destination function because it didn’t recognize “Chicago city hall” or its address, “121 N LaSalle Street”; and adding a “locate me” button. Additionally I’d like them to add some basic resources to advise users on where they can get more information about Divvy or bicycling in Chicago.

Adam and Andrew are going to publish a “dock surfing” function in the app that will incorporate multiple segments on Divvy to make a trip longer than the free 30 minute period. This would probably mean a fourth call to the Google Directions API. I emailed Adam and Andrew to learn more about the app development.

Video of Beinstein and Gluck presenting their app to Hack Night. Created by Christopher Whitaker for Smart Chicago Collaborative.

Why did you make Chicago Bike Route?

We made the app because we wanted to make something civic related. We thought that Divvy was an exciting new civic program coming into existence, and we kept seeing it all over the place. It also solves a real problem in public transportation that we notice and hear about a lot living in Hyde Park called the “last mile problem.” We also had the data in our hands from having attended civic hack night at 1871 when Divvy came and we thought “let’s make a native Divvy app!” And that’s what we did. We also released a framework for interacting with the Divvy API natively for developers who don’t want to get their hands dirty playing around with the iOS frameworks.

What makes your app stand out from the pack?

I think the routing but also the simplicity of design of the app.  We wanted it to be something you could just open up and use and was like all the other mapping utilities that one has on their phone (Google Maps, Apple Maps). And that’s what we did. You open it, enter an address, and you get routed to that address. Something that people could use to get up and running with Divvy with basically no familiarity with the system.

What features are you planning for the future?

Bike surfing! Seriously though. We think that it would be a really useful feature for some people, and also help reduce the cost of using the bikes. It would be useful for the regular riders where the $2 additional charge could really add up but also if you are someone who is not part of the program and are just taking the bike out for a joy ride. It can actually get kind of expensive, since every half hour after the first hour in a half is an additional $8, rather than $4.50 for members. You would also be less familiar with the bike stations under that situation. We also need to integrate with Chicago public transportation. But, we also want to keep with the simplicity, and create a user experience with basically no learning curve, and we are a little cautious to throw something in that could complicate things.

Pervasive Divvy station maps offer big opportunity to show people around Chicago, but need major changes

A man looks at one of the first five stations installed, at State and Randolph (but the board says State and Lake). 

Navigation maps on Divvy bike sharing stations will be placed at 400 locations around the city. A map this pervasive, to be read and interpreted by hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors to Chicago (including people who will never use Divvy), should have a design that communicates good routes to ride, and important places like train stations, nearby Divvy stations, points of interest, and where to find places to eat or be entertained.

The design of the maps on the station boards needs to be improved. The first issue I noticed in June is that streets and alleys are given equal significance in their symbology, possibly confusing people on which route to take. The map should strip alleys, offering room for more info on the map, like useful destinations. It may be easier for some to locate the Art Institute of Chicago as a labeled, light-gray block instead of trying to locate its address on the map (nigh impossible). When one locates the destination, one can more easily locate the nearest Divvy station.

The map at North/Clybourn’s station (actually on Dayton Street) covers a large portion of the map with the “you are here” label and lacks the connection between North Avenue and Goose Island. 

I’ve noticed that the “you are here” labels cover up train station markers/labels, and the loop elevated tracks are missing (a common reference point for Chicago). It takes a moment to realize that the white text is labeling the CTA stations and not the nearby Divvy stations. It’s unclear where “you are here” points to, until you realize that it’s at the center of the blue 5-minute walking circle. Dearborn Street is symbolized as a bike lane, but not labeled as a street. Clark Street and State Street are doubly wide, but the meaning of that is unknown. The legend is useful to distinguish bike lane types but is placed far from the map, at the bottom of the board.

Here are other areas where the boards and maps should be redesigned:

  1. The “service area” map has low utility in its current form as it’s not labeled with streets, points of interest, or a time or distance scale. It appears as a reduced-boundary blob of Chicago. It could be improved if it communicated “this is where you can go if you take Divvy” and label streets, train stations, and points of interest at the edge of the service area. 
  2. The 5-minute bike ride map is nearly identical to the 5-minute walk map, but smaller. The 5-minute walk map should be made larger and integrate the now-eliminated 5-minute bike ride map.
  3. Much of the text is unnecessarily large. The CTA station labels are so large in comparison to the streets that it’s not clear where on the block the stations are located. CTA stations are labeled but the train routes aren’t always shown (Loop stops are just gray); it’s not even clear that they’re CTA stops.
  4. The purpose of the blue circle isn’t labeled or clear: the larger map, titled “5 minute walk”, shows a large map but there’s a blue circle – is the blue circle or the square map the 5-minute edge? The connection between the title and the blue circle could be tightened by using the same color for the text and the circle or by wrapping the text around the circle path.
  5. The map, which is likely to serve as a neighborhood “get around” and discovery map for tourists, and even locals, lacks basic info: there are absolutely no destinations marked, no museums, parks, etc.
  6. The bike lane symbology doesn’t match the Chicago Bike Map, which uses blue, purple, orange, and red to denote different bike lane types, and hasn’t used green for at least seven years. The use of green makes them look like narrow parks.
  7. The map designers should consider placing the city’s cardinal grid numbering system to enable readers to find an address.
  8. North/Clybourn’s Divvy station map lacks a bikeable connection from North Avenue to Goose Island via the Cherry Avenue multi-modal bridge. The maps should be reviewed for street network accuracy by people who live and ride nearby.

Photo shows the original board and map at the Milwaukee/Wood/Wolcott station, which has since moved. The station on this map marked at Marshfield/North was moved to Wood/North this week. 

There are many opportunities for the map to change because they will have to be updated when stations are moved, for both the moved station and the handful of station boards that include the moved station. At least four boards needed to be updated when the station at Milwaukee/Wood/Wolcott moved from Milwaukee Avenue (next to Walgreens) to Wood Street (across from the Beachwood). The maps for Citibike in New York City don’t share these design flaws.

The Citibike station boards and maps were designed by Pentagram, a well-known design firm, with whom the city has a longstanding relationship, designing the new wayfinding signs for neighborhoods, the “LOOK” anti-dooring decal for taxi windows, and the bus station maps. One of the key differences between the Citibike and Divvy maps is the text label size, the symbol label size, and the presence of building outlines (that other huge group of things that defines a city, contrasting the roads-only view on the Divvy map).

A close-up view of a Citibike map. Photo by Oran Viriyincy. 

N.B. More trips are currently taken by tourists and people with 24-hour memberships than people with annual memberships. I question the bikeway symbology and suggest that the streets have three symbols: one representing a bike lane (of any kind), one representing sharrows (because they are legally different from bike lanes) and one representing a street with no marked bikeways. The current bikeway symbology may not be understandable by many visitors (or even understood by locals because of differing definitions) and show a jumble of green hues whose meanings are not clear or even useful. It’s not currently possible to take a route on a bicycle that uses only protected bike lanes, or uses protected bike lanes and buffered bike lanes, so the utility of this map as a route building tool is weak. One wastes their time looking at this map in the attempt to construct a route which uses the darkest green-hued streets.

I also recommend that the board and map designers give Divvy CycleFinder app messaging greater prominence. I believe that a majority of users will be searching app stores for appropriate apps. When you search for Divvy, you’ll find eight apps, including my own Chicago Bike Guide.

Updated 22:43 to clarify my critique and make more specific suggestions for changes. 

#protip: Businesses must tell their customers that a Divvy station is out front

I bet you want a Divvy station in front of your business. 

Gabe Klein, commissioner of transportation in Chicago, said on WBEZ on Monday that (paraphrased) “business owners are calling us to say ‘we’d like to buy a Divvy station to put in front of our restaurant’“.

Excellent.

Regarding my headline, I’m talking about telling customers on websites that, in addition to “where to park” and “which highway to take to access our location”, the website needs to give more diverse transportation directions. It should say how to get here by bike, and where the nearest Divvy station is.

When I worked at CDOT – I left before Klein arrived – I had the responsibility of increasing the number of visitors to the Chicago Bicycle Program’s website. I developed a set of strategies including making the content more searchable, adding more content, diversifying content types (like uploading photos staff took to Flickr), but also by increasing the number of inbound links. To satisfy that strategy I listed organizations where biking should be encouraged, like train stations and museums. I contacted many museums individually and asked them to include “bike here!” text on the webpage that otherwise told people to drive on I-290 and exit some place. I gave them sample text and even mentioned where the nearest city-installed bike racks were.

Several museum websites were updated as a result of this effort, but now I cannot find the evidence on Shedd, Field, or Adler websites.

Heck, forget the web. When your customers call, forget the assumption that most people drive and just start giving them directions as if they’re going to arrive in this order of transportation modes:

  1. Walking
  2. Biking
  3. Transit
  4. Scooting
  5. Running
  6. Taxi
  7. Ride sharing
  8. Pedicab
  9. Driving

Every mode requires different directions because people move about the city differently. Here’s an example: I’m giving directions to someone who’s going to drive from my house in Avondale to our friend’s house in the same neighborhood about five blocks away. I tell them, well turn here and there, and then drive through the alley to cross over this one-way street in the “wrong” direction… and “wait, those are directions on how to bike there. With all the one-way streets in my neighborhood, I honestly don’t know a good way to drive there, so ask Siri.”

Updating street life on Milwaukee Avenue

Photo of the new on-street bike parking corral at Revolution Brewing (2323 N Milwaukee Avenue) in Logan Square, less than 10 hours after being installed. 

First, Revolution Brewing now has 20 (or more) new bike parking spaces in what used to hold about two cars. Kudos to that awesome restaurant and brewery for working through the arduous process with the Chicago Department of Transportation and Alderman Moreno (who likely helped with the transfer of the metered car parking spaces). CDOT’s Scott Kubly admitted to having a bad process for businesses who want to install their own bike parking.

Wicker Park-Bucktown SSA had issues after the first round of bike racks we* installed in 2011. We donated the bike racks to the city for them to install at mutually agreeable locations at which they marked the spot for the contractor. We wanted to repeat the process in 2012 and bought the racks but they couldn’t be installed because CDOT, accepting the racks as donations in 2011 said that that wasn’t the right process and couldn’t do it again. So they had to figure out a new process. The racks were manufactured and delivered in 2012 to CDOT but weren’t installed until April 2013. Before the fix came in April 2013, we were going to have to go through the most basic process of buying a permit for each one (for $50) and then pay to have them installed ourselves.

The fix was great for the SSA, and I’m glad CDOT was able to make it happen: they got IDOT to amend the existing bike parking contract to allow the contractor to install non-city-paid-for bike racks. (This was the issue for the 2011 racks.)

Second, I’m proposing that private automobile traffic be banned on Milwaukee Avenue from Paulina Avenue to Damen Avenue. It would be better for the residents, and the businesses, and would encourage more cycling in the neighborhood, as well as surrounding neighborhoods having residents who would bike on Milwaukee Avenue if it was safer (there’s a big dooring and general crash issue). I reference the single, car-free block on Nørrebrogade in Nørrebro, Copenhagen, Denmark. One single block (plus bikeway and pedestrian-way improvements on the other blocks) and car traffic goes down but bus and bike traffic go up.

What Milwaukee Avenue looks like every afternoon. 

What Milwaukee Avenue could look like every afternoon. 

* I volunteer on the transportation committee, since about May 2011.

Tell me I’m wrong with my Parking Meter Deal Part Deux calculations

A parking meter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, displays the word “fail”. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

I want nothing more than to believe Mayor Rahm Emanuel has created a good deal but I believe his own parking meter deal is just as ridiculous as the deal – from Richard M. Daley and 45 aldermen – that preceded it.

Rahm’s deal changes none of what Chicagoans abhor about the current deal, which include:

  • It scheduled many price increases, without offering the buyer, those who pay to park, any additional value. Value could come in the form of a parking benefit district, where the revenues pay for local infrastructure improvements.
  • The city gets none of the revenue (it collects fines, though).
  • It costs us more than we ever expected (disabled parking placard, reimbursement for street closures, road work, and festivals).
  • It removes control from the city administration and aldermen over our streets. Thanks goes to Active Transportation Alliance for pointing this out in their excellent June 2009 original report (since retracted and revised) in which the organization said, “As a result [of the lease], planners and neighborhoods have lost control over one of their most powerful urban planning and revenue generating tools.”

It changes nothing that policy makers dislike about it:

  • We can’t implement dynamic or market or congestion pricing, unless the revenues for CPM stayed the same or were increased (although this would have to be negotiated).
  • It throws another cog into the city’s plans to expand bike lane mileage. We’re already having a difficult time with merchants not wanting to lose parking in front of their store, despite all the evidence pointing to bike lanes increasing revenues. To make way for a bike lane, the metered parking space has to be moved to an equally valuable spot within the same Parking Region. The alderman has to get involved and it’s not an easy process.

Rahm’s deal, which the city council must approve as an ordinance, doesn’t help Rahm’s priorities.

The Active Transportation Alliance report said, “This lease agreement [from 2009] compromised the city’s ability to adjust parking policy; because of the agreement terms, meters will be the primary consideration in the planning of our city streets. Everything else, from traffic flow to pedestrian, bicycle and transit facilities may only be considered after meters and their corresponding income has been considered.”

Rahm’s new deal doesn’t change that, but in fact will likely give CPM the same or more revenues under the plan. It will reduce the chargeable hours by 12 hours on one day (the newly free Sunday) and increase by 1 hour at more valuable times (weekday and weekend evenings) in areas that charge $2 and $4 per hour, and is increased by 3 hours at the same times in areas that charge $6.50 per hour. I’ve attempted to estimate how much more revenue with the spreadsheet below.

The city isn’t saving $1 billion – it hasn’t spent that money and there was no surety that it would; the press release acknowledges this, calling them ” estimated future charges”. The point here is that CPM and the city have agreed on how things like street closures and disabled parking placards will be paid for (by the city). CPM isn’t going to agree to any deal that reduces the value of the company to its shareholders.

No one asked to have free parking on Sunday. No one asked to have free parking on any day. Sunday is the day when people drive the least! If anyone deserves a break, it shouldn’t go to a small segment of the popular (“Sunday churchgoers”, Rahm said, acting as if they’re being harmed, and excluding churchgoers who don’t attend on Sundays), but to everyone who had to pay more than the parking space was worth and anyone who couldn’t get a bike lane in while people are being doored left and right.

Why else is free parking a bad idea? The experts at Active Transportation Alliance wrote:

Underpriced curb parking is a hidden source of traffic congestion and stimulates the most inefficient form of urban transportation. Underpriced parking encourages drivers to cruise for cheap parking, which harms everyone’s health and safety, slows down automobiles and buses behind the cruiser, and provides little benefit to the cruiser. It is a danger to bicyclists and pedestrians because cruisers focus on finding the right spot, not on whether a pedestrian is crossing the street.

It’s this last point, the lack of focus on anything but the parking spot, that is believed to be the cause of a cyclist being severely injured last week on Milwaukee Avenue.

Just like Daley, Rahm didn’t consult the one alderman whose ward might be affected most (it’s unknown if any aldermen were consulted). If this trend of the current city council being the most “rubber stamping” in all time (by my favorite local blogger Whet Moser), I predict it’ll be passed.

Calculations

[table id=8 /]

Since the number of spaces doesn’t change between the old and new scenarios, there is no need to calculate the total $ per space per region. Revenue estimate assumes the space is always occupied. In the new scenario, proposed by Rahm Emanuel and CPM, all spaces not in neighborhoods have become slightly more valuable, enough to more than make up for the reduced value of spaces in neighborhoods.

Updated May 3, 2013, 15:51 to add a link to the current version of Active Transportation Alliance’s parking meter report and to say that it replaced the original report. 

What people will say when Ventra comes out

Ventra is not a replacement for the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus. It’s a single card that replaces the following fare media*:

  • Transit Card (pay per ride)
  • 1-day pass
  • 3-day pass
  • 7-day pass
  • 30-day pass
  • 30-day reduced fare pass for seniors 65+ and customers with disabilities
  • U-Pass
  • Chicago Card (pay per ride, linked to personal credit/debit card)
  • Chicago Card Plus (pay per ride or 30-day pass, linked to personal credit/debit card)
  • Military Service Pass
  • There might be another pass type I’m forgetting

When people see how simple this really is, and how not inconvenient Ventra makes it for them and for CTA to administer, they will be shocked. You’ll hear things like:

“I can use my credit or debit card now to pay for passes at every vending machine?”

Previously, only certain stations had the correct vending machine. O’Hare airport is notorious for having three vending machines, none of which do the same thing but that do have overlapping functions.

“I can buy a 1-day or multi-pass at all 145 train stations, and not just at Walgreens or CVS, who tend to sell out? And with a credit or debit card?”

Yep. Isn’t that convenient?

“So you’re saying that when school is out and my U-Pass doesn’t get me unlimited free rides until the next semester, I can just hit up one of these 2,000+ retail locations and throw $20 – cash or credit, no difference – on there, or add a 3-day pass because I’m running around for internship interviews?”

Yes, that’s what I’m saying.

“Boarding this bus is way faster now that everyone has a contactless card. And this only took $5 at the vending machine, a 2 minute phone call after which I got that $5 back?”

You can even register online with your smartphone.

* Paper 1-day passes will be available. A single-ride paper ticket will be available.

BikeSpike has major potential impact for data collection

This is a pretty hilarious video showing the main reason one would get a BikeSpike: to catch a thief. 

Bill Fienup emailed me in December or January asking to meet up to talk about their bike theft tracking device (that does a whole lot of other stuff) but I couldn’t meet until February as the transition from Grid Chicago to Streetsblog Chicago was occupying my brain time. Bill’s part of Team BikeSpike.

The BikeSpike in hand. It’s very small and weighs 3.1 ounces.

It was convenient that they were at 1871 on a Tuesday night; I was there for Hack Night, they for one of the other myriad events that occurs on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart. They showed me a 3D-printed mockup of the BikeSpike, and told me what it was capable of doing. They seem to have a good programmer on their team in Josh Billions – yes, that’s his real last name.

I came to their lab near Union Park to talk in depth about BikeSpike with Bill, Josh, Harvey Moon, and Clay Neigher, garner more information, and provide them with some more insight into how the product can be useful to the transportation planning work I do as a Streetsblogger, advocate, and programmer. I brought my friend Brandon Gobel and he became interested to hear about how it could help him manage the future fleet of Bullitt cargo bikes he’s now selling and renting at Ciclo Urbano.

Beside the fact that BikeSpike can show law enforcement workers the EXACT LOCATION OF STOLEN PROPERTY, I like its data collection aspects. Like many apps for iOS (including Moves and Google Latitude), BikeSpike can report its location constantly, creating opportunities for individuals to track training rides and urban planners to see where people ride bikes.

Cities should know where people are riding so they can build infrastructure in those places! Many cities don’t know this until they either count them frequently and in diverse locations, or when they ask. But neither of these methods are as accurate as hundreds, or thousands of people reporting (anonymously) where they ride. I’ve got three examples below.

I imagine the BikeSpike will produce a map like this, which was created by Google Latitude constantly tracking me. 

Team BikeSpike: Clay, Bill, Ben Turner (I didn’t meet him), Josh, and Harvey.

1. Want to see if that new buffered bike lane on South Chicago Avenue actually encourages people to ride there and wasn’t just an extra-space-opportunity? Look at BikeSpike data.

2. The number of people biking on Kinzie Street shot up after a protected bike lane was installed. How many of these new Kinzie riders switched from parallel streets and how many were new to biking? Look at BikeSpike data.

3. Given relatively proximal origins and relatively proximal destinations, will people bike on a buffered bike lane (say Franklin Street or Wabash Avenue) over a protected bike lane (say Dearborn Street)? Look at BikeSpike data.

There are many other things BikeSpike can do with its GPS and accelerometer, including detect if your bike was wiggled or you’ve crashed. I want a BikeSpike but you’ll have to back the project on Kickstarter before I can get one! They need $135,000 more pledged by April 9.

What modernism should we preserve?

Ed. note: This post is written by Ryan Lakes, friend and architect

Goldberg’s Marina City towers are a couple of my favorite buildings in Chicago, but all of the discussion about preserving Prentice Women’s Hospital – designed by Bertrand Goldberg – has left me conflicted. The following is my response to the video above that was originally posted on Black Spectacles.

When we figure out how to easily move old, significant buildings that are no longer wanted by their owners and occupants, to museum-cities made up of the old masterpieces that have since fallen out of use or favor, then we will have the luxury to preserve them like books, paintings and sculptures. To me, large buildings are more like trees than art. Occasionally the great old fall to make way for the young. There is no moving them. And as time passes, individual systems age and decay, and evolution leads to new, often more efficient ways to compete for space and resources.

Prentice Women’s Hospital is slated for destruction by its owner, Northwestern University. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

Contemporary architecture has a new set of more complex criteria to respond to than what was included in original modernism’s scope. With form ever following function, in modernism, as functions change, so too shall the forms. Is modern architecture able to do so? How do fans of modernist buildings plan to preserve them as fuel prices rise and the desire for energy efficient buildings increases?  What else besides their structure is not obsolete? Let’s not forget that the time of modernism was when most thought our resources were unlimited, that it was better to leave our lights on 24 hrs a day to save bulbs, and that it was better to employ machines to fabricate our buildings rather than our neighborhood craftsmen.

Photo of Zurich Esposito at protest to save Prentice by David Schalliol. 

Metra finally updates its marketing strategy

Photo of a new billboard by John Greenfield. 

My Streetsblog Chicago partner John Greenfield writes about Metra’s new push to get more riders: free tickets.

The transit agency will be giving away two free tickets to any destination in the system to 500 people per week for fourteen weeks – a total of 14,000 tickets, good for the next 90 days. The recipients, who must be 18 or over, will be randomly chosen from those who register at MetraRail.com/TestDrive.

While there doesn’t seem to be any method for preventing current Metra riders from scoring free tickets, the hope is that the lion’s share of the winners will be newbies. To promote the giveaway to people who currently commute by car, the agency is spending roughly $390,000 on marketing, including billboards visible from expressways and radio spots in English and Spanish following traffic reports and gas price updates, as well as Internet advertising. The billboards emphasize the financial, time-saving and relaxation benefits of making the switch.

It’s about time that Metra got serious with its marketing and used messages that actually sell the service. Focusing on the kind of marketing that actually convinces customers – of any product or service – is the right move. That focus? Our product costs less than the alternative.

Metra’s current marketing consists of boring-looking billboards on its tracks as they cross expressways with things like, “Fly to work”, “We’re on time, are you?”, and “Easy come, easy go” (what does that even mean?).

There was no call to action, and no information for drivers to respond to immediately (or when their call is stuck in bumper to bumper traffic).

An example billboard over the Kennedy Expressway, south of Grand Avenue. This sign says “Easy come, easy go”. 

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